Duke basketball star goes No. 1 to Pelicans with eyes on UNC star’s crown

(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

A Duke basketball megastar became the first overall pick at the 2019 NBA Draft on Thursday and will soon begin silencing those who project his career to fall far short of the greatest-ever hype.

Apologies to the likes of Mike Krzyzewski and Grant Hill, but the Duke basketball program has never and will never bestow a greater gift upon the game than Zion Williamson.

And right now, after selecting the otherworldly one-and-done talent first overall at Thursday night’s NBA Draft, the New Orleans Pelicans look as if they just received a visit from a Blue Devil dressed as Santa Claus.

But will the 6-foot-7, 285-pound high-flying phenom from outer space — the fourth No. 1 pick ever from Duke, now the most of any program, and third under Coach K — become a winner of multiple championships at the highest level and finish as the all-time greatest show on hardwood?

If so, then the Blue Devils would gladly snatch bragging rights for producing such a player from their rival Tar Heels eight miles down the road.

At the moment, though, former UNC and Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan — whose winning attributes Williamson has admittedly tried to emulate — could scoff at the notion by reminding the world of his six rings, his six finals MVPs, his five league MVPs, his timeless aerial stunts, his 30.1 scoring average across his pro career, and his countless clutch shots.

On the other hand, doubters seem to have already forgotten the marvels Williamson put on display during his brief stint in Durham.

As an athletic specimen unlike any the sport has ever seen, Williamson’s potential is simply out of this world (as it looks at the moment, he’ll begin his career for New Orleans — a franchise that has finished below .500 in six of the past eight seasons — playing alongside former one-and-done Blue Devils Brandon Ingram, Jahlil Okafor, and Frank Jackson).

Like Jordan during both his three college years and his early years as a pro, the Spartanburg, S.C., native routinely puts his head at risk of hitting the backboard; however, Williamson inexplicably does so while carrying around the equivalent of a bag of concrete added to Jordan’s weight.

Also, Williamson proved more than just a mesmerizing dunker at Duke, showing off unbelievable lateral quickness, unrivaled energy on defense, surprisingly sensational handles, a keen eye for finding open teammates, and unthinkable thread-the-needle passes in transition.

As for his touch around the basket, it was nothing short of historic, as he knocked down nearly 75 percent of his attempts inside the arc.

A complete game.

Yes, despite the lies critics continue spewing to the contrary, Williamson proved to be a solid marksman from beyond the arc; though he only hit 33.8 percent of attempts from downtown as a Blue Devil, following his 3-for-18 mark prior to the start of ACC play, he went 21-for-53 (nearly 40 percent).

And had his Paul Bunyan footstep not caused his shoe to explode 30 seconds into the first of three Duke-UNC games, he likely would have become the only modern-day college player to have averaged at least 23 points, nine boards, two steals, and two blocks (he instead finished with averages of 22.6, 8.9, 2.1, and 1.8, respectively).

Speaking of UNC games, perhaps Williamson’s most memorable feat as a Dukie was hushing Tar Heels with the ultimate game-winner in the ACC Tournament.

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Unfortunately, Williamson’s chances to take over games in the closing minutes were few and far between. By dissecting the play-by-play for each of Duke’s three losses with Williamson in the lineup — including the season-ending Elite Eight loss to Michigan State — one could argue had Krzyzewski demanded the eventual national player of the year to touch the rock more often down the stretch, the 18-year-old might boast, like Jordan, a national championship on his résumé.

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Instead, across the final minute of each of those three losses, the unselfish giant went a combined 0-for-1 from the field while watching fellow one-and-done stud R.J. Barrett go 0-for-9.

The best bet for Williamson’s future coaches — he’ll start under Alvin Gentry in the Bayou — is to employ a different strategy than that of Coach K by encouraging the alien to selfishly take all the team’s shots until mere earthlings prove able to routinely stop him (with no star veterans on tap as Pelicans next season, Williamson is in an ideal place to establish a leadership role early in his career).

But by letting bygones be bygones and looking at the future from New Orleans fans’ current euphoric point of view, this lifelong Duke fan sees a lifelong dream on the horizon: the school in Durham staking its claim for having once been the stomping grounds of the GOAT.

Fingers crossed Williamson one day seizes the crown from Jordan after becoming the MVP for more than a handful of title-winning teams, for he represents the best and possibly the only opportunity for a Blue Devil to induce oh-so-sweet Tar Heel tears by doing so.

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Next. Three reasons Duke sweeps UNC next season. dark

Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more updates, analyses, and opinions concerning Zion, the remainder of the draft, and other Blue Devils in the NBA.