Currently there is no more exciting player in college basketball—in all of basketball, perhaps—than Duke’s Zion Williamson. He dunks with power and grace. He blocks shots that most defenders would consider lost causes. He literally dents basketballs. To learned hoops druids such as The Ringer’s Jason Concepcion, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound freshman forward seems like something out of a comic book, “like if a cinder block got bit by a radioactive spider.” From his opening tip in Blue Devils livery, Williamson had lived up to his billing as the second coming of LeBron James, placing among the Atlantic Coast Conference’s leaders in steals (2.2), rebounds (8.8), and points (21.6)—all while making shots at a mind-bending 68 percent clip. And then, on February 20, top-ranked Duke played host to eighth-ranked North Carolina, and the wheels fell right off.
Thirty-six seconds into that game, a hotly anticipated affair that fetched Super Bowl–steep ticket prices and attracted notables from Barack Obama to Spike Lee to Hayden Panettiere (whose celebrity couldn’t even secure her a courtside seat), a dribbling Williamson planted his left foot to separate from a Tar Heels defender, ripped open his shoe, and tumbled onto the floor clutching his knee. As he limped off the court, the air inside Cameron Indoor Stadium and the vibe on Twitter, where scores more fans were second-screening with ESPN, were thick with disappointment. Later, Williamson was diagnosed with a Grade 1 knee sprain. He spent close to a month on the shelf before his emphatic return to the starting lineup for Duke’s triumphant run through the ACC tournament, claiming MVP honors for himself after leading the Devils past Florida State in the final on March 16.