For Duke, Saturday's buzz was the new normal

NC State Duke Basketball-4

Duke's Zion Williamson (1) celebrates after he scored against North Carolina State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)


Sports Writer

Sunday, February 17, 2019

DURHAM — This past Friday, during All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, LeBron James was asked what he thought of Duke’s Zion Williamson, the 6-foot-7 forward with whom James has often been compared.

"What strikes me? His agility and his quickness," James told reporters. "For his size, how strong he is, to be able to move like the way he moves, he's very impressive.

“I mean, everybody can see the athleticism. That's obviously — that's ridiculous.”

On Saturday night, in the Blue Devils’ locker room, after Duke had taken care of N.C. State, that answer by James created an ironic scene.

Williamson, the 18-year-old with 2.3 million Instagram followers, who was the direct focus of a dozen or so reporters with cameras and microphones and notepads during that very moment, was asked if he himself was starstruck by the comments.

“Definitely an honor he even thinks I’m a decent player,” Williamson said. “But at the same time, I’ll be competing against him next year, so I can’t really be too starstruck. If I’m competing against him, I’m trying to win.”

Forgive Williamson for accidentally declaring for the 2019 NBA Draft: It was a hectic night, the type that has grown to define this season for Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and the rest of the Blue Devils.

Floyd Mayweather and an accompanying crew of about 15 arrived toward the end of the first half and sat right behind Mike Krzyzewski. LeBron James’ comments were still fresh. NBA players Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen were in the locker room after the game. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were even rumored to show up, though they never actually did. 

“If I was a celebrity, I’d come to Cameron (Indoor Stadium), too,” Williamson said. 

All of that commotion in Durham on Saturday, mixed with the relay of messages coming from All-Star Weekend down the road, produced a Twitter-induced storm that turned leading questions from the media into thoughtful answers from Williamson.

Was he starstruck by LeBron James? How does he deal with the attention?

Would Williamson, who is still enrolled at Duke University under the technical assumption of a four-year scholarship, be in the NBA dunk contest next season?

Strikingly composed for a sports icon who won’t turn 19 until June, the freshman took a savvy breath before answering that one.

“Me and Buck will discuss that more,” said Williamson, putting his arm around Mike Buckmire, the Duke walk-on who has assumed the necessary role this season as Williamson's unofficial spokesperson.

“I’m not sure yet — if they even put me in the dunk contest,” he continued. “They might not put me in. I’ll think about it, you never know.”

As the high-flying freshman weaved through inquiries, Tyus Jones, the Minnesota Timberwolves guard and brother of current Blue Devil Tre Jones, was a few feet away, fielding questions about this Duke team on the sole basis of association.

Tyus won the national title with Duke in 2015.

That run wasn’t close to this, he said.

“I thought we had a following,” said Tyus. “I thought we had a lot of hype. But it’s nothing compared to this team. 

“Their hype train is crazy. ... Something that not many teams in the history of basketball have had. They’ve done a great job of staying together, staying about the team, not letting — no offense — the media break them up.”

Perhaps the only thing this run is missing is a nickname.

Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon’s University of Houston had Phi Slama Jama. Michigan was the Fab Five. The Lakers were Showtime

With an apt name for Williamson and Barrett still pending, a reporter after the game made a comparison to Beatlemania in a question for Krzyzewski.

“You dated yourself longer than me,” Krzyzewski joked. “Can you come up with something more current?”

The real answer followed.

“Zion and R.J. are the key guys in dealing with that,” he said. “Zion came in here having a lot of attention. … Every game (he) played in high school or AAU was a show, so he’s been accustomed to dealing with that. R.J., because of the level of international experience, there's a maturity and a comfort level with not taking it seriously. ... They’ve handled it really well.”

For Duke, there is still much more to come, including two games with North Carolina, the ACC tournament, and, presumably, a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

Saturday, for all its bravado, will have been just another night in a few weeks. But the immediate aftermath, like the breakaway dunks from Williamson that started all of this, was another sight to behold.