Luke DeCock

Zion delivers everything expected of him, including a UNC-Duke rematch

It was almost possible, in this month the ACC went on as planned and scheduled without Zion Williamson, while Nike fretted and Duke sputtered, to forget what all the fuss had been about in the first place. Almost.

Williamson returned to basketball Thursday night like a blast of jet exhaust, knocking everything in its path off its feet, a performance so dominant it was almost possible to forget what the ACC had been like without him.

Rarely has a player exerted such a gravitational pull on the game, sucking everything into a vortex that swirls around him. ESPN’s hype may be breathless to the point of saturation, but it’s not undeserved.

His return was everything it was expected to be and both timely and necessary, really the only thing Duke had going for it Thursday night in an 84-72 win over Syracuse, setting up the third North Carolina-Duke meeting of the season in the semifinals but, presumably, the first in which Williamson will make it through the first minute without a wardrobe malfunction.

It’s the asterisk-free UNC-Duke game we all deserve.

Whatever you wanted Thursday, Williamson delivered. An early dunk. An alley-oop from RJ Barrett. Even a 3-pointer. He literally couldn’t miss from the floor – 13-for-13 – and with everything else going on, his 2-for-9 struggle from the free-throw line was merely curious.

It tied an ACC record, set a Duke record and a new ACC tournament record and was the 23rd 13-for-13 game in Division I history. Only four players have ever done better.

“I wouldn’t say perfect night,” Williamson said. “Like couldn’t really throw a tennis ball into the ocean with my free throws, so I don’t consider that perfect. But I know I was ready to come back a few days ago.”

It was fitting Magic Johnson was in the stands Thursday night, because Williamson is the same kind of spectrum-bending player Johnson was at Michigan State – a point guard in the body of a center, long before that kind of thing became fashionable. It’s hard to say what Williamson is.

If anything, he’s even harder to define after seeing Duke without him. Now that he’s back, the way he physically dominates the court, the way he toys with the laws of basketball physics, is even more impressive.

“I’ve seen a lot of great players, and I’m not saying he’s better than those guys, but he’s different,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “He can do things that nobody has done in this game.”

And for all the speculation about his future and his NBA stock and Nike’s emergency visit to Durham, Williamson said there was never any doubt about his return, only when.

“There was no question about it, I knew I was going to be back,” Williamson said. “Everybody has their right to their own opinion, but I knew I was coming back the whole time.”

And with no hitch in his step, no tentativeness, no concern. He leaped and landed, dove on the floor, threw his body around with the usual willful carelessness. Williamson was everything everyone asked him to be, hoped he would be, remembered he was. Especially Duke.

This was just another chapter. And Friday will be another. North Carolina beat Duke twice without Williamson, but Duke with Williamson is clearly playing a different game.

It’s what everyone wanted. If it measures up to expectations as much as Williamson’s return did, we’ll see what all the fuss is about. Again.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.