Duke Basketball: Zion is rare combo of best player, hardest worker

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

The game of Duke basketball freshman Zion Williamson is easy to love, and that has plenty to do with the fact that neither his work ethic or his talent ever take off a single play.

Never in doubt? Not exactly. A middle-of-the-pack Patriot League team full of heady, tough-nosed, hot-shooting Army cadets forced Duke basketball fans to squirm infinitely longer than they anticipated when watching the Blue Devils’ 94-72 home win against their head coach’s alma mater on Veterans Day.

The Black Knights kept the Blue Devils’ lead to within single digits at the half. They were within six with under 12 minutes to play in the game.

Yes, it was the sweet long-range strokes in the next moments from freshmen wings Cam Reddish (set a Duke freshman record by knocking down seven threes) and R.J. Barrett (has now scored 56 points in his first two games as a Blue Devil) that finally sealed the outcome and allowed fans to take a collective sigh of relief. But it was the consistent play of another freshman that gave fans reason to remain calm and confident no matter how close the score became at any given moment.

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And that’s likely to be the case all season.

His name is Zion Williamson. Yes, he’s the Blue Devils’ most talented player — maybe ever and potentially maybe even when compared to anyone who has ever picked up a basketball. Better yet, though, the southpaw forward is a blue-collar, not-afraid-to-sweat-through-his-jersey worker.

Every. Single. Second. He. Is. On. The. Floor.

But it’s not just his willingness to hit the floor with his entire body when chasing after a loose ball just to give his squad a chance at an extra possession. And when an opponent tries to put up a shot in the paint, it’s not just his God-given ability to leap and spike the ball as if he’s on a volleyball team competing for an Olympic gold medal.

See, it’s not just his physical hustle, refined game, or natural attributes. No, what he does also takes disciplined mental focus. He pays attention both in practice, evidenced from episodes of Duke Blue Planet, and in games.

He’s a student of the game. Perfecter of the game. And his motor, which never seems to run out of gas, should be the envy of all others who play the game.

So, let’s attempt to sum up (an impossible task) all he has shown he can do so far during his short time in Durham:

  • The 6-foot-7, 285-pound South Carolina native jumps higher than anyone at his weight likely ever has.
  • His concentration never wavers.
  • He has hit 22 of his 27 shots across two regular-season games, making him the team’s most reliable option — no contest.
  • He has scored exactly 55 points across exactly 55 minutes of play between Sunday’s contest and the 118-84 thumping of Kentucky on Tuesday.
  • In just his second college game, he added 16 rebounds and six blocks (there is not a word strong enough to describe the power of those) to his game-high 28 points.
  • He has a 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio.
  • He smashes all records for smiling — both in quantity and size from cheek to cheek.
  • He’s humble.
  • He’s kind to his teammates.
  • Despite already arriving at Duke with a scary-strong frame, he won the Iron Devil Award for his being the hardest-working Blue Devil in the weight room over the summer.
  • He’s a nightmare for opposing offenses, not just because of his athleticism but also because of his consistent desire to actually play defense.
  • He makes all rival fans jealous of Duke fans.
  • He is the ultimate source of energy.

Notice none of the above items even mention what he is best known for: his dunks.

Now, had Williamson not been in the game against Army, it’s still likely the Blue Devils would have found a way to win.

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But what is going to give the Blue Devils a chance to win no matter how the rest of the team is playing against all opponents yet to come across their path is Zion’s do-it-all presence — like LeBron James, who regularly takes teams to the NBA Finals no matter who is on his team, all viewers always know where Zion is on the court and recognize that just because he is on the court, his team always looks like the favorite.

There’s plenty more; this article, like all those about Zion, could go on and on. Fortunately, the season has just begun, meaning writers for Duke-focused sites, like this one, still have plenty of time and plenty of more articles to try to put into words the legend of Zion.

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For now, though, let’s just end it here with one word: Superhero.