It’s hard to believe that it was just one week ago that Zion Williamson’s foot burst through his shoe, he went down with a knee injury and the entire sports media world went into a frenzy.
For two days straight, Zion was the center of the sports world. Should he shut it down? Should he keep playing? It was all anyone was asking.
Since the initial injury we have gotten the answer to that question: Yes, Zion Williamson is expected to play college basketball again. Coach K has been adamant that the injury is day-to-day, and when Zion is fully healthy he will be back on the court.
But in the process of answering that question, we were forced to ask another question all together: If for some reason Zion Williamson can’t come back, can Duke win a national title without him?
Now three games into the “Life without Zion” experiment, it seems like we have a pretty clear answer: No, Duke can’t win a national championship without a fully healthy Zion Williamson. The Blue Devils are now 1-2 without him, and also nearly lost a game against Florida State in January when Zion sat the second half with an eye injury. Add it up, and it’s clear that Zion isn’t just that National Player of the Year, but the single most important player to his team in college basketball as well. Duke looks completely lost without him, a shell of the dominant juggernaut they are with him on the court.
Admittedly, part of that last paragraph seems like common sense. Some would say that it’s obvious that any team that loses the eventual No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft is going to struggle without him. Then again, how many No. 1 overall picks even impact wins and losses in college to begin with? Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons were both No. 1 picks and didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament. DeAndre Ayton was the No. 1 pick last year and didn’t make it out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Zion Williamson has more help than those guys. But he has also proven to be more valuable.
As a matter of fact, this injury proves just how valuable Zion really is, and just how expendable most other freshmen are in college basketball. Duke has two other guys who likely be selected in the Top 5 picks of the next NBA Draft (R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish) and another who will likely go in the first round (Tre Jones).
Duke was supposedly built to survive an injury like this. Instead, it has only heightened the importance of what Zion means to this team.
(By the way, remember when people were saying that Tre Jones was the most important player on this team? That might win the award for "Worst Take of the 2019 College Basketball Season.").
Yup, this injury shows just how important Zion is to this team, and also shows that his value goes well beyond big dunks and YouTube videos. Just watching Duke with and without him, it’s like night and day, and has unique skills that aren’t replaceable with the guys they have on this roster – again, a roster that includes at least three players who will be drafted in the NBA this season. Zion is Duke’s only real low-post scorer, a guy who – while he is certainly MORE than a low-post scorer – can pretty much just get you 10 or 15 points just by hanging around the rim and getting second and third chance rebounds and opportunities. He’s also by far Duke’s biggest defensive presence and rim protector.
Add it up, and it’s obvious just by watching Duke how much Williamson’s absence is felt. But the numbers back it up too.
On offense, Duke is averaging 85 points per game, good for fifth nationally. Not surprisingly, they aren’t as good without Zion, averaging just 73 points per game. That drop of 12 points per game without Zion would rank them around 170th
nationally, a similar scoring output to what Virginia puts up this season. Ewwwwwwwwww.
More than just the raw numbers though, is the fact that Zion completely changes the way Duke plays. Of all the jarring stats surrounding Williamson this year, this is maybe the wildest one: He is shooting 75 percent on 2-point field goal attempts. SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT!!! For comparison’s sake, Tennessee’s Grant Williams is shooting 60 percent from 2-point range. P.J. Washington – who has maybe been the best player in college basketball the last month – is shooting 55 percent on two point attempts. Zion is shooting 75 percent on those same shots! Just insane.
It also makes Zion’s absence that much more glaring, and again, impacts the way that Duke has played since he went down with injury. With Zion in the lineup, Duke takes an average of 42 two-point field goal attempts per game, and just 26 three-point attempts per contest. With Zion out however, they are taking just 31 two-point field goals per game, with an uptick to 30 three-pointers per game.
Read that again.
With Zion out, Duke is taking 11 fewer two-point attempts per game, and four more three-pointers. You don’t need to be John Wooden to know that when you’re taking fewer easy shots (especially when you’re making such a high percentage) and increasing the volume of difficult ones, it’s generally not going to work out well in your favor. Which is exactly what Duke has seen happen the last three games.
Yet as impactful as Zion is on the offensive end of the court, you could argue his impact is greater felt on defense. We all obviously know about his shot blocking abilities, which – as Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter found out – are otherworldly. But what folks probably don’t realize is that Zion also leads Duke with 2.2 steals per game as well, which is ahead of Tre Jones, who is considered one of the elite on-ball defenders in college basketball. With Zion in the lineup it’s not just a nightmare for opponents to try and score, but even run an offense
. The Blue Devils have forced an average of 15 turnovers per game with Zion in the lineup. They have forced an average of just nine per game without him, including just six at Virginia Tech on Tuesday night. Did I mention that Virginia Tech was without its starting point guard?
Oh, and one more thing. Let’s not forget that Zion is by far Duke’s most prolific rebounder, ripping down nearly nine rebounds per game, including three offensive rebounds a contest. With him in the lineup, they have a +6.6 rebounding advantage, meaning that they are outrebounding opponents by an average of nearly seven per game per game. That rebound margin is down to zero without him. Yes, you read that correctly. Even with Marques Bolden, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Javin Delaurier etc., Duke has gotten the same number of rebounds as their opponents the last three games.
And that, in a nutshell, speaks to the value of Zion’s presence. Duke is forcing six fewer turnovers per game, and averaging six fewer rebounds per game without Zion Williamson – can you imagine how many extra possessions he creates? And can you imagine how much Duke is hurt without him?
It also proves beyond a reasonable doubt, that even in a sport where we hype up freshmen every single fall, Zion is the outlier of all outliers. Outside of Anthony Davis, maybe Lonzo Ball and a few others, it’s hard to think of many guys who completely altered a team’s entire season with their mere presence. For every 30 guys like R.J. Barrett, Romeo Langford, Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons– ones that come into college hoops with a lot of hype but don’t truly alter games and seasons – there is just one Zion Williamson or Anthony Davis. Players who truly alter their team’s entire season.
The good news for Duke is that by all accounts Zion will be back at some point this season.
And they better hope he comes back.
They can’t win a title without him.