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DURHAM, N.C. — Shut it down? Are you kidding?
Don’t shut it down, Zion Williamson. Throw it down. Keep playing. Keep winning. Keep flying and swatting and dunking and spinning and scoring. Keep sending the Cameron Crazies into ecstasy. Keep joking with your Duke teammates in the locker room.
Basketball may never be this joyous again. Squeeze every fun minute out of it while you can.
On Wednesday, Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen offered his opinion on what the most dazzling freshman in years should do with his career. He thinks Williamson should sit out the rest of his one and only college basketball season and protect his NBA draft stock.
“I think he’s locked up the biggest shoe deal, I think he’s definitely going to be the No. 1 pick, I think he’s done enough for college basketball that it’s more about him personally,” Pippen said on ESPN. “I would shut it down. I would stop playing because I feel he could risk a major injury that could really hurt his career.”
Shut it down? No way. Crank it up. Set it off. Throw it down.
For the record, Williamson has no interest in taking Pippen’s advice. He said as much Saturday night after Duke’s 72-70 victory over previously undefeated Virginia.
“I can’t just stop playing,” he said, after a 27-point, nine-rebound effort that added to his oeuvre of jaw-dropping highlights. “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 was going to sit out, I wouldn’t have gone to college. I’m thankful that Coach K gave me the opportunity.”
Yes, the risk of injury is there. It’s been there all along. It will always be there. Would it be a small-scale tragedy if Williamson were to be seriously hurt and jeopardize a chance at making life-altering sums of money? Absolutely. Would it be a sickening reinforcement of the fundamental flaw in the sport, which insists that an NBA-ready talent must go to school for a year before earning big money? Absolutely.
But you can’t live life scared of what might happen. You can’t pack yourself in bubble wrap. You can’t walk down the street preparing for an anvil to fall from the sky at any moment.
And you can’t duplicate this college experience, brief as it is. Come June, this will be a job. There will be millions in the bank, but also greater pressure to produce. The NBA team that picks Williamson almost certainly will be terrible, so there will be plenty of losses. And the locker room will be different — adults of varying ages in varying stages of life, not a bunch of kids clowning each other after a big win.
“R.J.!” Williamson shouted to his teammate, roommate and classmate, R.J. Barrett. “What would you rate that dunk?”
“A five,” Barrett answered.
“A five?” Williamson responded, insulted. “If Cam [Reddish] or R.J. did it, oh my God it’s a 10. But whatever.”
I asked Barrett if he really thought the dunk was a five. He nodded yes in an exaggerated way that made it very clear he was lying.
Truth be told, the dunk in question was at least a 10. It was ridiculous. It was awe-inspiring, roof-raising, pandemonium-inducing. It was Williamson’s latest greatest.
It happened in the first half, with Duke leading 20-17. Virginia 7-footer Jay Huff had made a couple of impressive plays and was feeling it, but he was about to be Zionized.
Williamson snatched the ball off the defensive glass after a missed Virginia shot, then got his 285 pounds rolling toward the opposite end of the court. He went 1-on-4, a poor decision for mere humans but no problem for Zion.
Williamson simply sped away from Cavaliers guards Kihei Clark and Kyle Guy, leaving only Ty Jerome and Huff to contend with as he reached the 3-point line. A startling crossover dribble sent Jerome sideways and out of the play. Then Williamson, a left-hander, went up with the ball in his right hand, cocked it sideways and hammered it home through Huff’s hack of his arm.
— JP (@JPYahooSports) January 19, 2019
To recap: an 18-year-old built like an offensive lineman dribbled too fast to be caught by a pair of guards. Then he shook a third guard with a misdirection dribble out of the James Harden repertoire. Then he rose up and crushed home a dunk over a guy five inches taller.
You cannot be serious.
“Holy mackerel,” said Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in the history of the sport, a guy who has seen some things in his 71 years.
“He dribbled through four guys,” Krzyzewski continued. “I thought for sure he’s going to lose the ball, and then boom.”
Late in the second half, Williamson shot off the floor to reject a De’Andre Hunter shot with the vicious intent of a volleyball spike. He rose with both hands up, and at first it looked like it might have actually be a two-hand shot block. Upon further review it was just with one hand, his left, sending the ball whistling into the hands of Guy, who surprisingly missed an open look from three.
“In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have blocked it because it went right to Kyle Guy,” Williamson said. “He’s a great shooter. We got lucky there.”
Bullet dodged, Williamson then scored at the other end on another in a series of shifty drives to the basket. Duke’s young guns made more plays late than the Virginia veterans — surviving another shaky night at the foul line and earning their best victory of the season.
That’s because it came against an excellent opponent, and it came without starting point guard Tre Jones. His shoulder injury suffered against Syracuse looked like it might tilt this game in Virginia’s favor — the Blue Devils really don’t have a true backup point guard. But they do have a trio of 6-7 wings who can handle the ball well enough to get to the rim repeatedly against Tony Bennett’s famed pack-line defense.
This was a big performance on a big stage, and it added another layer to Williamson’s flourishing legend. He’s become the star of this college basketball season, yet he’s handled that spotlight with aplomb — enjoying it without bathing in it.
ESPN wanted to do a feature on Williamson before this game, but he turned it down. “That’s the last thing I wanted to focus on,” he said.
“We should all admire him,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s such a people person. He really doesn’t want a lot of attention. Obviously, he attracts a lot of attention. He doesn’t want to separate himself from the other guys.”
Don’t separate, Zion Williamson. Stay with your guys and enjoy the brief college ride. It will be over before you know it, and then basketball will be a business. Don’t shut down the most fun season of your life.
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