CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The drought has stretched 22 days, nearly six full games and approximately four million highlights of an exploding Nike. But finally, after an abundance of caution, endless speculation and countless referendums on amateurism, Duke freshman Zion Williamson is expected to return to the basketball court on Thursday night.
In the quarterfinal nightcap of the ACC tournament, No. 3 Duke will play No. 6 Syracuse in a game that will bring a much-needed adrenaline shot to the largely listless proceedings here in Charlotte. Unless something drastic happens before tipoff, Williamson will be back in Duke's starting lineup for the first time since suffering a right knee sprain after his left Nike blew out on Feb. 20.
It comes at a time when the Blue Devils (26-5) need a jolt, as they've gone 3-3 since his injury in the opening minute of a home game against North Carolina. Two of those losses were to surging North Carolina, and a Duke team that appeared destined for the NCAA tournament's top overall seed needs a good showing to secure a No. 1 seed.
"He's electric, he gives those guys that extra oomph," said Adrian Autry, Syracuse's top assistant coach. "He gives those guys energy, and he's the best player and he plays hard. It forces the other guys to match that intensity."
The intensity of attention will also multiply exponentially. Few need reminders of how Williamson sprained his right knee to end up sidelined in the first place. In the most memorable on-court moment of the basketball season, Williamson's low-cut Paul George-model Nike ripped apart at the seams less than a minute into that Carolina game. It was a quintessential scene for this viral generation, as it combined the sport's best rivalry (Carolina-Duke), most iconic venue (Cameron Indoor), most powerful shoe brand (Nike) and the most celebrated and anticipated prospect in the American pipeline since LeBron James (Zion). Former President Barack Obama, sitting courtside, exclaimed, "His shoe broke," as if the moment needed another mega-influencer to toss kerosene on the viral bonfire.
A few major questions will accompany his return.
Will Zion be wearing different shoes?
The expectation is yes. After Zion's Paul George-model Nikes exploded beneath him, change is inevitable. Those sneakers were lower cut, and the strong expectation around the Duke program is that Williamson will wear higher-cut LeBron James- or Kyrie Irving-model Nikes that will better support his massive frame and raw power.
Will his conditioning be back?
Williamson has been practicing full speed for a few days, but it's impossible to know how well conditioned he is until he's in a game situation.
Duke is perilously thin in the frontcourt without him, as the Blue Devils will be playing without Marques Bolden, a 6-foot-11 post who averages 19.5 minutes per game and is sidelined with a knee injury. (A realistic estimate for his return is the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.) "That's a big deal for them," Autry said of Bolden's loss. "He's a big guy who does some things, especially on the defensive end protecting the rim."
How will the NCAA tournament committee judge Duke?
When the committee finishes its annual evisceration of the souls of mid-major programs in place of undeserving power conference teams, it will turn its attention to Duke. With three of their five losses coming without Zion, a spirited performance here could help make a realistic argument for the Blue Devils to land a No. 1 seed. There's a simple reality of this Duke team with Williamson. "They have the biggest upside of anyone here," said Notre Dame associate head coach Rod Balanis.
What will Zion’s return mean on the floor for Duke?
There's the tangible, which is easy to quantify. He averages 21.6 points per game, 8.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 2.2 steals. Then there's the intangible energy that comes with his dunks, blocks and hustle play.
"He's really unguardable," Balanis said. "I mean, there's never been a specimen like that, so powerful and athletic. When he gets that spin move on you, you just can't slide with him. He's just so fast."
Will Zion be pressed on Thursday night?
Realistically, no. Syracuse is expected to be without leading scorer Tyus Battle. He suffered a bruised hip against Clemson on Saturday, and missed the Orange's 73-59 victory over Pittsburgh here on Wednesday. Syracuse has little chance to win if Battle doesn't play against Duke, and coach Jim Boeheim said Battle is likely two to three days from being healthy. There's no reason to risk his health when the only games that matter tip off in a week.
Battle averages 17.2 points and more than 36.3 minutes per game, and the Orange are without the offensive firepower or schematic creativity to overcome his absence.
Syracuse did beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season, 95-91 in overtime, a game the Blue Devils played without star wing Cam Reddish and with little contributions from point guard Tre Jones, who left with a first-half shoulder injury.
Duke won the rematch in the Carrier Dome without Williamson later in the season, 75-65, with R.J. Barrett scoring 30 points.
"We know everyone is going to be watching, they want to know how he is since the injury," said Syracuse sophomore Oshae Brissett. "I'm glad he's back and glad he's healthy."
So is the rest of America. Life with Zion is much more interesting and entertaining, as he has the ability to turn a likely mismatch on the floor Thursday night into a must-see event.
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