Duke Basketball: Is Flyin’ Zion the Blue Devils’ answer to Air Jordan?

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Leading up to the start of the 2018-19 Duke basketball season, Ball Durham will be putting out player previews, and they start with this hype piece about the Blue Devil with the highest ceiling (hopefully even higher than that of Michael Jordan).

Full disclosure: As a diehard Duke basketball fan growing up in North Carolina during the ’80s and ’90s, unlike the rest of my classmates — and pretty much the rest of the world’s population — I did not at all “wanna be like Mike.”

No, I despised the attention that former UNC great Michael Jordan received — so much so that I boycotted Gatorade immediately following the first time that I had to watch that famous commercial. I never watched Space Jam. And I refused to ever wear any article of clothing that included MJ’s silhouette. Heck, I even made sure to keep my tongue in my mouth when I played rec-league basketball so that no one would ever mistake me for a fan of His Airness.

And I didn’t mind admitting that all this stemmed from my jealousy that Duke’s rival could make the claim that it had been the school of choice for the best to ever lace ’em up.

More from Ball Durham

But what I was also never too shy to admit was that I often dreamed of a day when a teenager would arrive on Duke’s campus with the hops and talent to potentially overtake Air Jordan as the GOAT. However, whenever I voiced this dream in school, my friends would laugh at me and tell me it would never happen.

And as the years went by with no former Blue Devil ever coming close to winning six NBA titles or wowing crowds with high-flying moves like those of Jordan that left spectators’ jaws hanging, doubt began to creep into my brain that my dream would ever be fulfilled in my lifetime.

Then came Jan. 20, 2018.

On that night, a 6-foot-7, 285-pound high school senior from Spartanburg, S.C., named Zion Williamson sent shock waves throughout the basketball world by committing to Duke. My first reaction was to obnoxiously send all my Tar Heel and Duke-hating friends a simple four-letter text in all caps: “ZION!” Then I stayed up until the wee hours of the night rewatching every YouTube video I could find of the Eighth Wonder of the World.

As I watched those highlights, for the first time in my life I could honestly tell myself that a member of #TheBrotherhood was possibly a better overall dunker than Jordan. But did he have the skills to go with it?

Well, months went by as I anxiously awaited his debut in a Duke jersey. And when the Blue Devils’ three-game Canada Tour finally arrived in August, I got the answer:

Zion was more than just a sensational dunker. His handles were more than adequate. His shot was more than good enough to keep defenders honest. His passes were as crisp as a newly opened can of Pringles. His court vision was better than 20/20. And his hustle on defense was more than just ideal — it was inspiring.

He averaged about 30 points across those three games; however, so did fellow freshman R.J. Barrett, whose game actually more closely resembles that of Jordan.

So does that mean that my dream has suddenly come true and it’s multiplied by two?

Well, while Barrett’s game — as well as that of freshman Cam Reddish — is spectacular, it is lacking one thing when compared to that of Zion: total uniqueness.

No former player exists that Zion can be compared to.

He’s at least 60 pounds heavier than Jordan was during his prime, yet he jumps nearly just as high, meaning he is a rim’s worst nightmare.

He has the floor presence of LeBron James — meaning when you watch a game with him in it, you can’t take your eyes off him — yet the biceps even of James do not seem to compare to those of Williamson.

So is a combination of the best attributes of King James and Air Jordan the best way to describe Zion?

I’m not sure even that would fully suffice in describing his potential. I think Zion is just Zion, and I think there is no way to overhype him. I’m not even convinced he is from this planet. Plain and simple, he is a specimen the basketball world has never before seen.

Related Story. Why Zion, not R.J., should be Duke's top scorer. light

I guess it’s possible I’m getting ahead of myself. My expectations may be too high. It’s possible I’ll end up disappointed. Jordan may always remain the GOAT.

But I don’t think any of the above statements are likely.

I just have no worries when it comes to Zion’s game living up to my lofty praise. What I do worry about, though, is that years from now, people will poke fun at head coach Mike Krzyzewski for being the only person to hold Williamson to 20 points or less per game (as was the case with the late head coach Dean Smith when it came to the scoring average of Jordan at UNC).

Worries aside, though, I’m more excited about the season ahead than any other that has ever preceded it, primarily because of the existence of Zion in Durham. I don’t mean any disrespect to any other Blue Devils on this year’s squad, but I have a childhood dream at stake that has a real shot at coming true due to this once-in-a-lifetime phenom.

However, I’m fully aware that before Williamson can try to top the career of Jordan in the NBA, he must first achieve what Jordan did in his freshman season in college.

So while I’m thrilled to see Flyin’ Zion in Durham — if only for one season before he bolts to the NBA — where I most want to see him is atop a ladder (as if he would even need it) holding a pair of scissors in Minneapolis on April 8, 2019, after making Duke basketball fans smile cheek-to-cheek with a championship-winning dunk as time expires.

Actually, the best way to summarize what I am trying to say here in this “player preview” — which likely sets a player-preview record for its level of hype — is to quote the opening three words of that Gatorade-commercial jingle from 1992 that I refused to sing: “Sometimes I dream.”

Next. Duke-Kentucky preview and prediction. dark

But even if my ultimate dream doesn’t come true and it turns out that I set the bar too high and too early, one thing’s for sure: I’ll still always wanna be more like Zion than Mike.