DURHAM, N.C. — If you care about college basketball, you have already seen the play in question on your tablet or your phone or — for you oldsters out there — your television. It wasn’t the play that decided Duke’s riveting 72-70 victory over Virginia on Saturday evening at Cameron Indoor Stadium, nor did it come during the dizzying array of lead changes in the second half.
But it came from the sport’s marquee player at the moment, his latest signature. Zion Williamson, with the ball in the backcourt. Zion Williamson, now 285 pounds moving upcourt with uncommon dexterity, a shorter Shaq with a handle. Zion Williamson, naturally left-handed, to the rim with his right hand. Oh, my goodness, protect the children.
“There were four guys,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought for sure he was going to lose the ball — and boom. Boom!”
That is the sound of Williamson’s impact in these first 17 games — roughly half of what will be his only season — at Duke. The dunk he delivered in that first-half moment is only a fraction of what he can be — shoot, what he already is.
The 18-year-old is the latest in a series of Duke freshmen who arrive on campus, learn their way around, then bolt before performing such mundane college exercises as, oh, picking a major.
But there’s also something that makes Williamson different from Jabari Parker or Jahlil Okafor or Justise Winslow or Marvin Bagley III — to name a few. He is mesmerizing in a way they weren’t, known by one name before he even suited up. He is Prince. He is Madonna. He is Zion.
“There’s a lot going toward him,” fellow freshman Cam Reddish said. “He’s still young. He’s still trying to figure out who he is.”
Which is a good way to characterize almost any two teams in college basketball as it gets to late January — figuring out who they are. What played out between the team ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press (Duke) and the team ranked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll (Virginia) was a mini-classic that helped inject juice into what appears to be a rather interesting season. That the Cavaliers suffered their first loss won’t matter much in three weeks, when these teams meet again, this time in Charlottesville. It won’t matter much a month after that, when exactly no one would be shocked if they met for the ACC title.
“We might see them in, hopefully, the NCAA tournament,” Williamson said.
Wouldn’t that be something? Put all the UMBC jokes aside, please. Virginia was good enough to win it all last year. Virginia is better this year.
“They’re terrific,” Krzyzewski said. Drink in this fact: Virginia had not lost an ACC road game since 2017. The silly — and unfortunate — thing for Virginia: It’s going to take into March, into the NCAA tournament, for the “UMBC! UMBC!” chants to cease. (Here’s what amounted to a clever sign at Cameron on Saturday: “UMBC lost to a 16 seed.”) The fact of the matter is that a win over the Cavaliers is a storm-the-court-worthy event in nearly every arena. Maybe the Cameron Crazies didn’t do that Saturday. But they brought their A game, because they were facing a Grade-A program, and they knew it.
“We learned a lot from them,” Williamson said.
By now, the world thinks it has learned everything it needs to know about Zion. He was a point guard until eighth grade. His dunks from high school in Spartanburg, S.C., deserve their own YouTube channel. He scored 27 points Saturday — in a game in which he missed seven free throws. And at 6-foot-7 carrying all that weight, he decidedly does not look like someone who is about to put the ball on the floor and rumble by you.
“He just gets a head of steam,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said.
If you saw him on the street, you’d think he was a . . . what?
“I definitely wouldn’t think he played basketball, for sure,” said RJ Barrett, the other Duke freshman who actually led the team with 30 points while also helping fill in for injured point guard Tre Jones. “I’d think he’s some sort of football player.”
What he is is a creation of the current environment — in college basketball, in social media, in a viral video culture. So, of course, people have opinions. Why, here was Scottie Pippen, basketball Hall of Famer and sidekick to Jordan for all those years, musing this week that Williamson would be better off punting on the remainder of his season at Duke to prepare for the NBA draft.
Williamson was asked about that Saturday. He claimed he hadn’t heard it. And then he gave the absolute right answer.
“I can’t just stop playing in the middle of the season,” he said. “I’d be letting my teammates down. I’d be letting Coach K down. I’d be letting a lot of people down. If I wanted to sit out, I wouldn’t have come to college. But I came to Duke to play and live out this dream.”
Part of the dream, though, is fitting in. With two of the top four teams in the nation facing each other, ESPN’s “College GameDay” show was on campus. With a 6 p.m. tip, it was feasible that Williamson would have time to drop by the set at some point in the afternoon. Williamson declined.
“He really doesn’t want a lot of attention,” Krzyzewski said. “Obviously, he attracts a lot of attention. . . . He doesn’t want to separate himself from what the other guys are doing.”
And yet . . .
“The spotlight doesn’t bother me at all,” Williamson said.
That’s good, for sure. Because he’s got it. Not all to himself, because Barrett is nearly as good, and Virginia might ultimately be a better team, and Michigan and Michigan State must be heard from, not to mention upstart Tennessee and still-figuring-it-out Kansas and a whole bunch of others.
But it is Williamson who draws the eye. You can’t look away. That dunk through traffic?
“Holy mackerel,” Krzyzewski said.
“What would you rate that?” Williamson shouted across the locker room to Barrett afterward.
“That was a 5,” Barrett, Williamson’s roommate, shot back.
“A 5, bro?,” Williamson said. “A 5?!!?”
“You didn’t even do anything,” Barrett said. “He barely touched you.”
“He barely . . . you know what?” Williamson said. “That’s fine. If Cam or RJ did it, ‘Oh, my God, it’s a 10.’ ”
Williamson’s attention turned elsewhere. The joke died down. But there’s something underneath the ribbing.
“If I give him a 10, he’s going go feel good about himself,” Barrett said, “and he’s not going to do anything better.”
That’s the feeling that stayed with you Saturday. There are better things ahead for Duke. There are better things ahead for Virginia. And the central figure in the college basketball season has virtually unlimited possibilities. Just listen for the boom.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.