Zion Williamson is stringing together a historic NBA rookie campaign but has repeatedly insisted he nearly became a Duke basketball sophomore, begging one question: what if he had?
Intentional or not, Zion Williamson has given Duke basketball fans no choice but to wistfully wonder what the 2019-20 Blue Devils would look like with the hoop gods’ 6-foot-6, 285-pound miracle creation.
By waiting until the deadline last spring to declare for the NBA Draft, last season’s Naismith Trophy winner teased the childlike wishful thinkers. And several weeks ago, by reiterating his thoughts about the supposedly tough decision to The Ringer while on The J.J. Redick Podcast With Tommy Alter, Williamson forever fueled fairytale what-ifs:
"“Me, I wanted to go back. Nobody 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. You know, the money thing, that’s money. I don’t play this for money. I play it because I genuinely love the game. And I just loved my experience at Duke that much where I wanted to stay.”"
Of course, the 19-year-old — who debuted for the New Orleans Pelicans only six weeks ago and on Tuesday night extended his NBA-record streak of 20-point games by a teenager to 12 with a 25-point, eight-rebound, three-assist, four-steal stat line in a 139-134 home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves — explained that his desires didn’t align with society’s common sense:
"“It was one of those situations where Coach K is not going to let me come back because he wants me to do what’s best for the family. My teammates are saying, ‘Man, that would be dope if you came back,’ but at the same time, they’re telling me I would be leaving too much [on the table].”"
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If those teammates who did return this season, along with the four scholarship freshmen who arrived, were indeed enjoying the presence of Williamson, well then, for one, the NCAA would be on the verge of striking oil from this March Madness.
Just consider how Williamson is continuing to spread Zionmania at the next level.
Bending rims. Sending shots to Timbuktu on defense. Wowing spectators with delivered and received masterful passes in transition. All to the tune of 24.2 points, 6.9 boards, 2.2 dimes, 0.9 takeaways, and 0.4 swats in only 29.1 minutes per game — while shooting 58.8 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from the beyond the arc — across his first 16 games as a pro.
As for this imaginary Zion-anchored Duke basketball team, not only would a No. 1 seed be in store for Selection Sunday (March 15), but a No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll all season would have been a near certainty — so would either an empty or near-empty loss column.
Dream, if you will, of Williamson being the unquestioned go-to choice in crunch time (assuming close contests would exist in the first place).
Contemplate the authority of an unmatched pair of bruisers down low in the form of Carey Jr. and Williamson.
Picture the free-flowing poetry Jones and Williamson would create on the court in what would be their second season building chemistry together.
Think of the headaches the three-headed defensive monster of Jones, Goldwire, and Williamson would cause for opponents.
Conceive, if you can, of the excitement from watching dual aerial acts like those of Stanley and Williamson.
Conceptualize how unimaginably fun the life of Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski would be right now with all that a more experienced Williamson would provide.
Try wrapping your head around the overall impact the smiling enforcer’s otherwordly game and persona would have on these Blue Devils (No. 12, 23-6 overall, and 14-5 in the ACC), who without him are trying to retain that mojo they’d lost during a recent stretch — three losses in four games — but rediscovered in Monday’s 88-69 victory in Durham over North Carolina State.
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Fixate on how frightened North Carolina would be leading up to Saturday’s 6 p.m. tip inside Cameron Indoor Stadium — as we all know Zion would wear better shoes this time around.
Lastly, fantasize about the mad amount of jubilation that would be coming from the Duke basketball fanbase on social media all throughout March and just how mad that would make folks in Lexington, Chapel Hill, and everywhere else Blue Devils are Public Enemy No. 1.
On his podcast, J.J. Redick — now teammate to Zion Williamson for the 26-35 Pelicans alongside fellow former Duke basketball players Brandon Ingram, Frank Jackson, and Jahlil Okafor — simply, yet accurately, reckoned what the madness would have looked like:
It “would have been the craziest thing ever.”
OK, let’s pinch ourselves before we also start imagining what would be a senior Jayson Tatum, for we must get back to imagining what is at least a somewhat realistic future: Dukies under a mad confetti shower on April 6 without Zion Williamson.