NBA

Zion Williamson Revealed Just How Close He Came to Returning to Duke

Zion Williamson has only just begun his career in the NBA, but he’s already one of the biggest stars in the league. As he takes his first steps as a pro, the brawny phenom has revealed that he nearly stayed in college for a second year. This is yet another example of how Williamson is a rare talent, both on and off the court.

Zion Williamson’s surprising path as a prospect

There was once a time when Zion Williamson wasn’t a household name. In hindsight, it’s staggering to think Williamson wasn’t the main draw when he arrived on the campus of Duke University. At the time, scouts expected RJ Barrett to be the top pick in the NBA draft; eventual lottery pick Cam Reddish had a similar level of hype.

It wasn’t like Williamson was an unknown recruit. He was a consensus top-five recruit, named South Carolina’s Mr. Basketball in 2018. Videos of his high school days showed Williamson throwing it down on opponents who belonged in a vastly different weight class.

There’s something comical about these highlights of Williamson, already blessed with muscles, finishing at the rim while defenders try in vain to stop him. The clips don’t look real.

Considering his competition — South Carolina isn’t exactly a hotbed for basketball prospects — there was a prevailing feeling that his impact would be less once he faced higher-level opponents. Instead, Williamson bent college basketball over his knee, and viewers fell in love. 

‘Zion mania’ strikes basketball fans

Williamson did what many considered impossible: He made Duke the coolest team in the NCAA, if just for a season. Williamson showed his talents in the debut game against Kentucky (28 points in 23 minutes), and he somehow got even better from there. 

The young star ripped up record books and game plans with equal efficiency. Here are some of the historically great things Williamson accomplished while at Duke:

  • He became the second player in Duke’s history to put up a stat line of at least 25 points, 15 rebounds, and five blocks in a game
  • Williamson broke Duke’s freshman record for the most points in a single game.
  • He set a freshman record for most 25-point games in a season with nine.
  • He became the third freshmen after Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis to collect 500 points, 50 steals, and 50 blocks in a season.

But Williamson’s impact went far past the realm of numbers. No player has ever had his frame and stratospheric athleticism. The power forward looked and performed like a superhero the entire season — a positionless force who leaped over entire ACC teams in a single bound.

It was a perfect year for Williamson until it nearly became catastrophic. In a game against North Carolina on February 20, he slipped on the floor and sprained his knee. The image of Williamson curled up on the floor, with a blown-out shoe on his right foot, broke the internet after the incident.

Dozens of hot takes debated the merits of paying college athletes or whether Williamson should play for Duke anymore, even after the injury healed. The star did return after the injury, and he was as strong as ever. Duke’s season ended in the Elite 8, but Williamson proved he was special. 

Did Williamson really consider staying at Duke?

Zion Williamson of the Duke Blue Devils is interviewed after a loss to Michigan State
Zion Williamson of the Blue Devils after a loss to Michigan State | Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Williamson entered the 2019 NBA Draft as the only option for the No. 1 pick. Prior to his declaration, a few rumors suggested that he may stay at Duke for another season. His stepfather said returning to college was not “something we’ve even considered.”

But Williamson has since admitted that a sophomore year at Duke was something he really considered. He discussed the decision on an episode of the JJ Redick Podcast with Tommy Alter

“I wanted to go back. No one ever believes me, they think I’m just saying that, but no. I genuinely wanted to go back. I felt like the NBA wasn’t going anywhere. Money’s cool, but I don’t play this for money, I play because I really love the game. I just loved my experience at Duke that much that I wanted to stay. “

Williamson went on to say that his parents, college teammates, and even Coach K had to convince him that going to the NBA was the smartest choice. The fact that he was willing to forego millions of dollars because of Duke’s environment says a lot about his level of maturity.

Williamson’s not just a freakishly gifted player. He’s also mentally prepared to carry the hopes and dreams of everyone rooting for him. As long as his body holds up, the NBA will have a new star to sell.

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