CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Two minutes is all it took.
Zion Williamson had been gone for a month following a knee injury against North Carolina. Six games of frustration, including three losses, for Duke and a whirlwind of debate about the freshman superstar’s future filled the void. And then, two minutes into Duke’s 84-72 win over Syracuse in the ACC tournament, Williamson reminded the world of what it had been missing.
Williamson stole an outlet pass, dribbled downcourt, leapt from just inside the foul line and delivered a powerful tomahawk dunk. Cell phone cameras flickered, the crowd erupted, and it felt like Williamson had never been gone. And that was just the start.
The Duke freshman finished the game 13-of-13 from the floor, tying the ACC record for most makes without a miss. His 29 points led all scorers, and his five steals set the tone on defense. He added 14 rebounds, too, becoming the first Duke player to post a 25-10-5 line since Christian Laetner in 1992, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
A month ago, there was debate about whether Williamson should return at all. On Thursday, he said he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Everybody has a their right to an opinion, but I knew I was coming back the whole time,” Williamson said.
The Duke freshman said he wasn’t aware of his perfect shooting night until a team manager informed him afterward, and he downplayed the success by noting he “couldn’t throw a tennis ball into the ocean” from the free-throw line, but Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim picked up the hype machine where Williamson wouldn’t.
“I’ve been in this game over 50 years, and I’ve seen some great players,” Boeheim said. “I’m not saying he’s better than those guys, but he can do things nobody has done in this game. He’s crazy. He’s a different type of player. There’s not guys like him.”
Williamson, who won the ACC’s player of the year award despite missing the final month of the regular season, changed the dynamic on both ends of the court for a Duke team that struggled to find an identity without him. His five steals opened the transition game for the Blue Devils, and he helped Duke dominate the Orange in the paint. Perhaps as important for Duke, he proved he’s healthy enough to change the dynamic against the Tar Heels in the third installment of the rivalry, which comes Friday.
Williamson was asked after the game how eager he’d been to get back. Mike Krzyzewski interrupted the answer.
“How about how badly I wanted him out there?” he said.
Not that Williamson’s return wasn’t without controversy.
After another Williamson dunk, about eight minutes into the game, Syracuse’s Frank Howard extended his leg in what appeared to be an effort to trip the Duke star as he retreated down the court on defense. The move created a stir on social media, and broadcasters blasted the move during the game. Afterward, however, Boeheim was quick to defend his player, calling it a “manufactured” story and saying there was no trip.
Howard offered a similar rebuttal, saying he had no intention of injuring Williamson and pointed to his career at Syracuse as evidence he’s not a dirty player.
“I mean, if you said I tried to trip him, I don’t get it,” Howard said. “I realized I tripped him, and I tried to give him a little hand at the same time. I mean, it’s the heat of the game with a very tough defender on me, and I was trying to get open, get the ball and bet the ball out fast. … He’s a hell of an athlete and a hell of a player. I have a lot of respect for him. I’m not going to wait four years to get to this stage to start tripping people.”
For his part, Williamson said he wasn’t aware of the tripping incident until after the game and seemed perplexed by the controversy. He did, however, have a lot to say about the heated debate regarding his sneakers that followed his February injury.
Williamson was wearing Paul George Nikes, which tore open during a spin move on the opening possession of Duke’s loss to North Carolina on Feb. 20. Williamson said it was the second time this year he’d blown out a Nike shoe after ripping through the toe of a Kyrie Irving model during the summer.
After the high profile injury, however, Nike sent representatives to Duke to meet with Krzyzewski and Williamson, then flew to China to work on manufacturing a modified version of the Kyrie 4 shoes with additional padding. Williamson was also told to rotate shoes more frequently.
Nike issued a statement Thursday in advance of Williamson’s return to action: “We’re thrilled to see Zion returning to the court. After working closely with the Duke Basketball team to examine the issue, we are confident this was an isolated incident. We continue to work with Duke, and all of our partner programs, to ensure we are providing the best product for their athletes.”
Krzyzewski offered his support for the brand, too.
“We think it’s the best shoe or else we wouldn’t be with them,” Krzyzewski he said.