After 22 days of countless speculation, a lengthy national debate, and zero seconds of playing time logged by the most talked about college basketball player in recent memory, Zion Williamson returned to the court Thursday night.
All the freshman sensation did in his return was give arguably the greatest individual performance in the history of the ACC tournament.
Williamson attempted 13 shots in Duke’s 84-72 quarterfinal win over Syracuse. All 13 of them went through one of the two nets inside the Charlotte Spectrum Center. Some with more force than others.
The performance made Williamson the first player in the 66-year history of the ACC tournament to attempt more than 12 shots and not miss any of them. He finished with a game-high 29 points, but his impact — and his history-making — was felt in areas other than the scoring column.
Williamson became just the third player in the history of Duke basketball, and the first since Christian Laettner, to finish a game with at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five steals. Besides Laettner and Williamson, Grant Hill is the only other Dukie to accomplish the feat.
“I’ve been in this game for over 50 years and I’ve seen a lot of great players,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said after the game. I’m not saying he’s better than those guys, but he’s a different player. He can do things nobody has done in this game.”
If the numbers and the praise weren’t enough, Zion also endured a “worlds colliding” tripping attempt by Syracuse’s Frank Howard, a moment which had Grayson Allen’s name trending on Twitter throughout the night.
Williamson has been doing so many absurd things since the very first night of the 2018-19 season that there’s a tendency to gloss over some of them with a minimal degree of appreciation. This shouldn’t be one of those instances. No mere mortal should be able to be sidelined three weeks because of a knee injury, and in his return play what amounts to a damn near perfect statistical game (ignore the 2-for-9 free-throw shooting).
Since his shoe exploded 33 seconds into the most anticipated regular season game of the season, Williamson has been perhaps the most-discussed athlete in America. Despite that weight, despite the rust of three weeks off, despite the elevated stage of the postseason, and despite an NCAA tournament opponent that prides itself on its defense, Zion once again looked like an NBA All-Star giving some grade school campers the treat of a lifetime by playing some full-court with them.
The performance, which came on a night where Tre Jones and Cam Reddish were a combined 5-for-19 from the field, also helped ensure that Williamson’s college career won’t end without him playing more than a half-minute against North Carolina.
In Friday night’s second semifinal, Duke and Carolina will square off for the third straight year in the ACC tournament, and for the 23rd time overall. This meeting could wind up deciding which one of the Tobacco Road powerhouses ends up with a No. 1 seed on Sunday — or which one receives preferential geographical treatment from the Selection Committee. It also serves as an opportunity for some face-saving for a Blue Devil team that was swept by UNC — and by a combined 25 points — in the two regular season meetings where Williamson was sidelined.
He’s playing, he’s healthy, and Friday night he’s getting his shot at the rivalry experience a fluke injury threatened to rob him of.
Zion’s back. Catch the show while you still can.