Saying he was ready to “pursue my next dream," Zion Williamson declared for the NBA draft Monday, after one stellar season at Duke. The unusually bulky but hyper-athletic forward lit up college basketball and is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft.
“Thank you for making this year the best year of my life," the 6-foot-7, 285-pound forward said in an Instagram video in which he made his declaration. “I don’t think I can put it into words how special this year was.”
While helping Duke this past season to a No. 1 ranking, the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament and the doorstep of a Final Four berth, Williamson led the Blue Devils in points (tied with fellow freshman star R.J. Barrett at 22.6), rebounds (8.9), steals (2.1) and blocks (1.8). He led the nation in such advanced metrics, per Basketball Reference, as player efficiency rating (40.8), effective field goal percentage (.708) and box plus/minus (20.0).
Williamson’s impact went far beyond the numbers, though, and even beyond Duke’s substantial team success. He quickly became a must-see athlete, wowing huge TV audiences not just with an array of highflying, powerful dunks but also with deft passes and jaw-dropping defensive plays.
Williamson’s one and only season at Duke season resulted in a near-sweep of major honors, including the John R. Wooden Award as the national men’s player of the year — making him just the third freshman to receive it, following Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis — the Naismith Award, AP player of the year and ACC player of the year and rookie of the year.
“Thank you for making this season a dream for me," Williamson said in his announcement after expressing gratitude to God, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, assistant coaches, teammates, family and friends. In addition to his mother, he singled out Coach K for praise, saying that Krzyzewski “taught me so much about the game of basketball in one year.”
As Duke’s season went along, with Williamson rapidly establishing himself as the overwhelming front-runner to go No. 1 in the draft, he made references to an expectation of being in the NBA next season. At one point, he said it would be “dope” to possibly join Durant and Kyrie Irving on the Knicks, and after LeBron James and Steph Curry discussed him during All-Star Weekend, Williamson responded that he’s “hoping to be there competing against them next year.”
With declaring for the draft essentially a no-brainer, especially after his Duke freshman teammates and close friends Barrett and Cam Reddish had already done so, a much bigger decision for Williamson could be with which shoe company he signs. In a testament to his burgeoning popularity, Williamson’s footwear became a major national story after his foot broke through a Nike sneaker he was wearing in a much-anticipated game against North Carolina, resulting in a knee injury that sidelined him for several games.
Nike, which has had a long-standing partnership with Duke, will undoubtedly go to great lengths to lock up a player widely seen as the heir to James. However, other companies may well view him as worth a massive investment to try to pry from Nike a bigger share of the lucrative sneaker market.
The results of the NBA draft lottery, which will determine which team wins the No. 1 pick, are set to be revealed on May 14. The Knicks, Cavaliers and Suns share the best odds, 14 percent each, of getting that pick.
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