It doesn’t take a whole lot of intelligence to notice a strong correlation between Zion Williamson’s presence on the floor and the likelihood of Duke winning a basketball game. It certainly helps that he’s stronger and faster than every one of his opponents, but he’s also a smart enough player that he won’t have to coast on his athletic abilities at the next level. Both of these factors combined can manifest themselves into incredible clutch plays like Zion’s insane putback over what seemed like North Carolina’s entire unit.
That bucket wound up being the final points of the game to give Duke its first win of the season over North Carolina. Once again, it’s no coincidence that this was the first full game Zion played against the Tar Heels.
But there’s also a certain transcendence to Zion’s game that takes him beyond the level of just being a great basketball player. He falls into a category of athletes whose highlights don’t amaze you so much as they make you question the reality that you just experienced. Instead of “oh, holy shit!” your gut-reaction tends to be “did....did that just happen?” Today’s examples are players like Steph Curry, Lionel Messi and this past season’s version of Patrick Mahomes.
For Zion, this is normally the case with gravity-defying dunks. But on Friday, it came in the form of a three that I’m honestly still trying to wrap my mind around.
The ball was shot so hard that even though it almost misses the inner square of the backboard entirely, it still has enough power on it to bounce off the opposite edge of the rim, back off the backboard, and off the front iron before it ricochets its way into the net. You can discount this kind of thing as a “lucky bounce” all you want, but in the moment of the game it feels as though that basket was all part of Zion’s plan—especially when it’s compounded with everything else he did that game.
Players like him can create an aura of invincibility around them that, once built up, make even the tiniest deficits against them seem insurmountable. Roy Williams even recognized some version of this phenomenon himself with Zion after the game when he told reporters his team was up against Superman and there wasn’t anything they could do about it. It’s a metaphor that works pretty well in this situation. On the one hand, you have an interpretation where Williams is saying there was a designated “hero” on the court that the Tar Heels just weren’t scripted to beat. On the other, you can literally imagine Superman in Zion’s position and find yourself using similar logic with his basketball-playing abilities. (Would Superman swishing a three from half-court be impressive? Yes. Would your surprise diminish once the fact that Superman was taking the shot settled in? Also yes.)
If you somehow found yourself not convinced, however, consider this: these lofty comparisons from one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time are happening just two games after Zion chose to return from a knee injury in games that are theoretically meaningless for his draft stock.