Rare is the case where a National Player of the Year race is so clear cut.
And no. Zion Williamson’s missed time with a sprained knee hasn’t hurt his cause. In fact, it’s only helped.
The Duke freshman should and will be the runaway winner for National Player of the Year after making an impact on the college game that a single player has not made in years — if ever.
His teammate R.J. Barrett may siphon some of the support for the award for his own outstanding campaign.
But despite wowing fans and scouts while becoming the ACC’s all-time freshman scoring leader, Barrett has not had near the impact on his team or on college basketball as Williamson.
Williamson blew away sky-high expectations
Williamson arrived at Duke as the third-rated prospect on his team, a superstar out of high school better known for his dunking than his all-around game.
Scouts pointed to more polish on Barrett and Cam Reddish to rate their NBA prospects higher. But Williamson quickly put to rest any idea that he was strictly a highlight-reel act with a readymade Instagram and Youtube following.
Williamson made his prowess felt and seen all over the court from Day 1. Yes, he dazzled with his dunks. But he also handled the ball on fast breaks, deftly dribbling through triple teams before leaning on his superior size and athleticism to finish at the rim.
Much more than a dunker
He showed a jumpshot — while not blessed with elite range — that is more than competent enough to force defenders to respect it.
On defense, nobody in the game could match up athletically. He was a force in the paint and a threat to block any shot in his neighborhood whether in the post or on the perimeter.
The numbers are all there. Williamson averaged 21.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.8 blocks while shooting 68.3 percent from the field during the regular season as a 6-7 power forward.
And the finishes. Yes, the finishes. Williamson’s prowess around the rim was everything as advertised and more. Concerns that he was picking on kids not his size in high school were quickly quelled as he dominated the college game in similar fashion.
Sports’ hottest ticket
He’s a must-see attraction. His planned appearance in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry sent game tickets at Cameron Indoor Stadium beyond Super Bowl prices.
His injury less than a minute into that game was prominent enough to take over the news cycle for a full day.
And what’s happened to Duke since Williamson left the court with a knee sprain six games ago only strengthened his case as National Player of the Year.
Williamson’s impact magnified by his absence
An elite team like North Carolina quickly pounced on his absence in Durham, exposing the void he left in the paint for easy buckets while forcing the Blue Devis to scramble to find scoring elsewhere. Outside of Barrett and Reddish, they didn’t. And they looked like a middling basketball team completely outmatched by a rival.
The next five games didn’t look a lot better. The Blue Devils did pull away late for a road win over a tough Syracuse team that beat them in Cameron. And they walloped a bad Miami team at home.
But they lost on the road to a Virginia Tech team missing one of its best players in Justin Robinson and needed a last-second shot from Wake Forest to not drop to avoid losing as 26½-point favorites on Senior Night. They looked better in their rematch with North Carolina, but still ended up on the wrong end of a sweep.
Duke just OK without Williamson
The team that many had pegged as a runaway tournament favorite became a shell of itself. Without Williamson, Duke would struggle to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Of course any team missing its best player is going to have its difficulties. But the impact Williamson’s absence has on Duke is profound. With Williamson, Duke is 23-2. Without him, it’s 3-3.
It only proves his value as the team’s most important piece and the National Player of the Year.
Williamson expected to return for March
The good news for Duke is that head coach Mike Krzyzewski expects Williamson to be ready to play in the ACC tournament.
It appears that March will not be deprived of the game’s most exciting player. Which is a good thing for the game, of course — except for the teams that find themselves in Duke’s path.
Williamson has already secured NPOY honors. If healthy, he’ll have the chance to blaze a path to elevate himself among other transcendent players in the college game — names like Christian Laettner, Larry Johnson, Patrick Ewing and Magic Johnson who added big NCAA tournament moments and a national title to their NPOY résumés.
Williamson has already proven himself as one of the most impactful players to ever step on a college court. A national title would elevate his status to a true icon of the game.
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