It wasn’t a Zion Williamson dunk that ignited Duke against Florida State in the ACC tournament final on Saturday night.
Early in the second half of a Duke 73-63 title win, the Blue Devils clung to a five-point lead. The wing, whose elite athleticism and ebullient skillset have electrified all of college basketball, grabbed a defensive rebound and rather than attack in transition and dunk the ball for his 70th throwdown of the season, Williamson rifled a left-handed pass through a handful of Seminole defenders to fellow freshman Tre Jones. The guard converted the reverse lay-up, increasing Duke’s lead to seven points, the team’s largest lead of the night.
Williamson similarly resuscitated his team the night before: down 13 points midway through the first half, the 6-foot-7 Blue Devil scored seven consecutive points on just three shots, jump starting the team’s comeback and scoring 31 points in the 74-73 win. That game led to an appearance in the ACC tournament title game, which Duke of course won in just its third finals in the past seven conference tournaments.
Before the postseason, Williamson had missed the previous six games with a grade 1 sprain of his right knee, an injury he suffered several weeks ago, and these plays culminated what has been a seamless and successful return to the court. Williamson sparks Duke.
“He does a lot of things that they don't have without him, so it kind of changes the way they play offensively, definitely. And it changes the way they attack,” said North Carolina wing Cam Johnson.
Or, as UNC coach Roy Williams said in the post-game press conference, “Zion being hurt really hurt Duke.”
Duke is projected as a borderline 1-seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament, but because of Williamson’s presence, this isn’t the sort of Blue Devil team that disappoints the first weekend—there isn’t a Mercer or Lehigh-type upset lurking to upend the bracket of every college basketball fan nation-wide.
Without the wing, Duke is a hodge-podge of McDonald’s All Americans and role players, but add Williamson, who, as a future one-and-done, provides a consistent brilliance on a game-to-game basis like few others, and the ACC squad becomes transcendent. He’s why Duke is the favorite to win the 2019 national title, which would be the sixth in the four-plus decade career of coach Mike Krzyzewski.
On the surface, Williamson’s importance is easy to spot: before the knee sprain, Duke posted a 23-2 record, and while he recuperated, the team lost three of six games. Using the scrim of analytics, though, it’s clear the Blue Devils are a vastly inferior team when Williamson is unavailable.
According to HoopLens.com, which charts points per possession rates while a player is active, and Duke’s freshmen quartet, which includes RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Jones, has scored 115 points per 100 possessions with Williamson this season while holding opponents to just 85 points per 100 possessions.
Even when he is on the bench, the team’s efficiency ratings remain largely unchanged— just knowing Williamson can play has a largely deleterious effect on the opposing team. But during the six games in which Williamson was injured, Duke’s rates plummeted: the team scored an anemic 98 points per 100 possessions. Duke becomes just another squad when Williamson is sidelined—one that is obviously talented but fallible, and certainly capable of being upset by a higher seed.
The plays that Williamson is capable of making are at a level that no one else in college basketball can ever hope to achieve. There isn’t a single player within the past decade has ever come close to matching Williamson’s output—an offensive rating of 130.7—and overall efficiency, connecting on 76 percent of his two-point field goals (while only attempting 12.5 field goals per game).
Take the ACC semifinal: with just over a minute remaining, Williamson drove the middle of the lane, elevated against three Tar Heels and missed the 5 foot jumper. The ball caromed hard off the rim, and before any of North Carolina players had landed, Williamson was already well into his second jump, gently tipping the ball into the bucket. The shot was ultimately the game-winner, and he simply smiled as he backpedaled down the court. Maybe Anthony Davis or Kevin Durant could have made that play in college, but that’s the level of sui generis play that coach Krzyzewski has at his disposal.
Of course, there are detractors, those that claim that the Blue Devils are inept from the perimeter, and don’t have the depth or interior size to counter teams like Michigan State or Gonzaga—all accurate concerns. But to worry about the Blue Devils’s 30 percent three-point field goal percentage is akin to losing sight of the forest for the trees. It doesn’t—and shouldn’t—matter.
Duke became the title favorite the moment Williamson committed to the school last January, remained the title favorite when he scored 28 points versus Kentucky in the season’s opening win (and the subsequent 27 wins).
And post-Williamson’s injury, that status as the team to beat in March is unchanged.