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The Year Zion Williamson Took Flight—and Was Grounded

At his most mundane, he defies easy categorization. At his best, he supersedes hyperbole. Williamson was the most electric and captivating basketball player of 2019, but injuries have stalled his NBA career before it got started.

Mario Zucca

I know man can’t fly. Our bones are too dense, and our bodies are not nearly aerodynamic enough. We’re chained to the earth by gravity, taunted from above by birds and bugs and inventions of our own design. Only in mythology can we conquer these constraints. Superheroes and Greek gods soar through the sky, unshackled and threatened only by hubris. I thought mortals were doomed to a life rooted to the earth. And then I saw Zion Williamson.

From his collegiate debut in November to his last hurrah in the NCAA tournament, and on through the NBA draft, summer league, and preseason, Williamson was the epicenter of the basketball universe. At Duke, he lived up to his billing as a star prospect: He scored, rebounded, blocked shots, stayed out of foul trouble, and bested all who crossed his path. His box scores and game logs tell the story of a talented teenager who measured among the best college basketball players in the country, but they don’t come close to explaining what it was like to watch him play.

For six months, Williamson tested the laws of gravity. My colleague Rodger Sherman compared Williamson to an Airbus, and another Ringer piece featured art that showed him jumping off the face of the earth. At his most mundane, Williamson defies easy categorization. At his best, he supersedes hyperbole. He stands 6-foot-6, as tall as a modern 2-guard and more agile than those who tower above him. His massive frame—be it thicc, fat, or somewhere in between—measures at 284 pounds, yet he carries it nimbly. During his freshman year at Duke, he was heavier than all but one player in the NBA, Boban Marjanovic, who stands 10 inches taller, and weighs only six more pounds.

Watch him here, on the road against the eventual national champion Virginia Cavaliers in February. Down seven with under five minutes remaining, the Hoos’ star wing and eventual no. 4 NBA draft pick De’Andre Hunter collected a pass in the right corner. No player, Blue Devil or otherwise, shared the same side of the floor as Hunter, and his closest foe, Williamson, was in the paint on the opposite side of the rim. It was the kind of shot that changes the course of games. A few months later, Hunter would hit a similar jumper to tie the national title game. This one should have been easier, though. He gathered the ball, rose, and released. Only suddenly, his shot wasn’t open anymore.

“That is called a recovery,” Jay Bilas said on the broadcast. “That’s also called ridiculous,” his partner Dan Shulman echoed. At the peak of his flight, when he blocks Hunter’s shot, Williamson—who jumped out toward Hunter and not straight up vertically—was above the rim. He left the floor just beyond the paint, in line with the N in “Virginia” etched on the baseline, and landed at the first row of the stands on the sideline, sending the ball into the risers. There have been superb athletes, and elite shot blockers, and violent dunkers who created highlight reels and set records with nearly every play conceivable on a basketball court. This was the first time I’d ever seen a player soar.

Williamson’s single collegiate season was maybe the most dominant in the sport’s history. His PER is the highest on record. So is his career true shooting percentage. And his box plus/minus. He was as efficient as he was spectacular. Even still, the qualities that make him great are the same that could keep him from reaching his potential in the NBA. The fact remains that there are two Zion Williamsons: the one who flies rather than jumps, moving with such power that not even the stitching on his sneakers can contain him, and the one who suffers the consequences of that strength.

He has yet to make his NBA debut, still recovering from the latest and most serious injury of his young career. When healthy, he might be the first player for whom the adage “the sky is the limit” is applied literally. The fear is that his body won’t ever let him reach it.

Before Zion became Zion, he was a blur in a YouTube video. As Danny Chau wrote last year for The Ringer, Williamson’s origin story mirrors that of a superhero. In high school, he grew 3 inches and added 50 pounds. Shots of him playing in Spartanburg (South Carolina) Day School’s red-and-white unis became commonplace on basketball Twitter. There he goes blowing through four defenders and throwing down a windmill dunk. And another, of him getting so high above the rim for a rejection you’d think he was trying to leapfrog the shooter. A YouTube search for “Zion best dunk high school” returns dozens of compilation packages of his most impressive yams, sorted by year. By the time he committed to Duke, he was the most famous incoming freshman in the country—maybe ever.

But even as an ardent Duke fan, I didn’t show him the same love or enthusiasm as I did his contemporaries before his first game in a Blue Devil uniform. RJ Barrett was the star of the class, a Canadian dynamo oozing with offensive upside, and the next in an impressive lineage of freshman Duke wings. Cam Reddish was the wild-card, touted for his shooting, and Tre Jones was the first pure point guard to grace Cameron Indoor since his brother Tyus helped hang a national championship banner there in 2015. I was a student in Durham that season. Between Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, and Justise Winslow, and the one-and-done phenoms like Jabari Parker, Brandon Ingram, and Jayson Tatum that preceded and followed them, I believed I’d seen the full might of what a talented freshman could achieve.

Williamson was undoubtedly the star attraction in the class, even if he was its third-highest-rated recruit. His mixtape fame translated into unfettered hype. His high school game against LaMelo Ball was a social media sensation. Duke’s preseason exhibition games were nationally televised, and ESPN produced a behind-the-scenes documentary on the team’s preparation for the season. Before he played a single game, Zion was a basketball folk hero.

Still, as preposterous as it seems now, to me, he was just a body—a more talented Semi Ojeleye who would provide some highlights and grab boards while RJ and Cam shined. His shot was supposedly lackluster and as impressive as his 45-inch vertical was, jumping isn’t everything. I said out loud to people who supposedly took me seriously that I thought Williamson was the fourth-most-exciting Duke freshman in the 2018 class. It took less than two minutes for me to feel dumb.

One hundred seven seconds into his collegiate career, Williamson took and hit his first shot: a 3-pointer from the top of the arc. A few minutes later, he hit a jumper. And then a free throw. And then a dunk. By the end of the half, he had 13 points. He finished the game with 28, and his no. 4 Blue Devils bludgeoned the second-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, 118-84. He not only proved he was more than just a dunker; he was the best player in the sport.

Over the next few months, Duke raced out to a 23-2 record, and Zion emerged as the presumptive no. 1 pick. Each night, he showed something new. Against Indiana, it was a windmill on a fast break that sent the Cameron Crazies sky high. Facing Clemson, he pulled off a 360 that would’ve looked unrealistic in a video game. And against Eastern Michigan, he reached an elevation that typically requires an oxygen mask.

For all his high-flying exploits, the defining memory of his collegiate experience happened on the floor. Thirty-three seconds into Williamson’s debut performance in college basketball’s biggest rivalry, disaster struck. Traversing the top of the paint while guarded by North Carolina’s All-American forward Luke Maye, Williamson took an awkward step and planted in an attempt to stop his momentum. For us mortals, our knees might’ve buckled, or we would’ve felt a slight twinge; maybe we would’ve fallen over. But none of us carry Zion’s frame or his power. His shoe stopped, but his foot kept going.

President Obama, in attendance to see a human highlight, mouthed what most were thinking: “his shoe broke.” It was the biggest spotlight of Zion’s season, but for the worst reason. As his left foot slid through the stitching of his Nike PG 2.5s, his right foot stayed glued to the floor, folding underneath his weight. He would miss almost a month with a Grade 1 knee sprain. Without him, Duke sputtered.

The Blue Devils lost that night to Carolina, and twice more in the next five games without their star. During the season, Duke went 29-3 in games when Zion played more than one minute. In the rest, 3-3. But the impact of his absence moved beyond wins and losses. Nike sent executives to Durham, and then to China to find out what went wrong with his sneakers. Even when sidelined, Zion was a cultural force in the sport. Pundits and experts called for Williamson to sit out the remainder of the season to preserve his draft stock. How fans felt about whether he should play or sit turned into a referendum on one’s referendum on NCAA amateurism—returning meant risking injury, and future earnings. Why would Zion endanger his livelihood for a school that gave him nothing financially and reaped the benefits of his labor? On the other hand, why should anyone but Zion make the decision about whether he should do the thing he loves: playing basketball? Zion became a cultural pivot point. The emotional experience of watching him play was so powerful that we never really considered what he meant until it was possible he might not play anymore.

“For the people that think I should just stop playing in college and just focus on the NBA,” Williamson said before his return. “Thanks, but no thanks. … I’m just trying to be Zion.”

When he finally returned for Duke’s opening round of the ACC tournament against Syracuse, he scored 29 points and grabbed 14 boards, and then 31 points (including the game-winning basket) against North Carolina. He willed the Devils to a title win over Florida State. Without Williamson, Duke was just another team. With him, they looked like champions and were awarded the NCAA tournament’s no. 1 overall seed. Zion’s charm managed something that seemed impossible in college basketball: He made the Devils likable.

In the NCAA tournament, Zion muscled Duke past early-round opponents, but Duke lost to Michigan State in the Elite Eight as Williamson, the National Player of the Year and the dominant force in the sport all season, took a single shot in the final six minutes. Barrett drove at collapsing paints twice, took a contested deep 3, and couldn’t convert two free throws with a chance to tie the game. What should’ve been a storybook finish instead ended with tears.

The Pelicans, who drafted Zion no. 1, have played 27 games, and Williamson has not appeared in any of them. As the calendar turns to 2020, his NBA career consists of a few baskets in Las Vegas and a handful of plays in the preseason—he remains a myth, a much-anticipated star whose career has been stalled by injury. In mid-October, four days after the Pelicans announced Williamson was out with knee soreness, they released a statement saying he’d undergone arthroscopic surgery to repair his torn right lateral meniscus. At summer league, he sat because of pain in his left knee. And even before his right knee sprain at Duke, he’d battled a knee injury in high school.

The common refrain is that the jumping and bullying and jostling for position eventually wears big men down. There have been plenty of players larger than Zion, but none as explosive, and none who relied on athleticism as much as he does. Maybe he’ll overcome this setback and embark on a decade-long career free of injury. The more worrisome possibility is that he’ll be rewarded for his prowess with cruelty; the gift that lets him fly is the same that could keep him grounded.

Williamson was, all at once, a deeply likable Duke basketball player, the most incendiary athlete of a generation, and a showcase of pure potential. This was the Year of Zion. When he rose, he soared, like no one else before him. Now, as we wait for his eventual return, we hope he won’t crash down to earth.

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