Luke DeCock

Zion could walk away, and maybe should, but that’s not why he’s here

Zion Williamson injured as Duke falls to North Carolina

Check out photos from UNC's win over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC Wednesday night, Feb. 20, 2019.
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Check out photos from UNC's win over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC Wednesday night, Feb. 20, 2019.

Zion Williamson may or may not play Saturday against Miami. He may or may not play Tuesday against Wake Forest. But if what he has said in the past is any indication, if the reasons he chose to play at Duke are any guide, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Williamson.

It does make some financial sense for Williamson to shut it down, on the theory that there’s nothing he can do at this point to improve his draft position and only risks further injury by continuing to play. Maybe it’s even the smart thing to do.

All of that went up for grabs the moment his left foot tore through his Nike shoe and his right knee took that awkward turn. It could have been so much worse, which is what has animated the debate about whether it’s worth even returning at this point.

It’s important to remember, though, that Williamson was the fourth member of Duke’s five-star recruiting class. He came to Duke not to improve his draft stock or be a game-dominating star – even if both turned out to be true – but to join the team he thought had the best chance of accomplishing something significant, even if that meant sharing the spotlight with R.J. Barrett and the others.

There were plenty of places he could have gone to shine the brightest; Duke was one of the very few where it seemed nearly guaranteed he wouldn’t, where he would potentially be a spare part, even. If he wanted it to be the Zion Show, he could have gone to Clemson, where he would have been the Tigers’ Ben Simmons for a year. ESPN would have found him there. He didn’t need Mike Krzyzewski for that.

But he chose this, chose the risk of being the fourth wheel on a good team over being the best player on a lesser one. He chose winning, or at least what he thought was the best chance of it.

“Playing for Coach K, playing with these great players, I felt like I couldn’t turn that away,” Williamson said after the Clemson game. “And these other players have pushed me to be a better player.”

So to the extent we can predict what Williamson will or won’t do, his motives for coming to Duke would indicate he’ll return at some point, perhaps not the precise moment he is medically cleared, but before it’s too late to have an impact on the team’s success.

In both a medical and pragmatic sense, the most likely date for Williamson’s return is next Saturday at North Carolina, which will give his sprained knee plenty of recovery time and deliver his return for maximum impact before the postseason.

“There’s no timetable,” Krzyzewski said earlier this week. “We don’t want to put the pressure of time on him. Let’s just take care of it.”

There’s no question the Blue Devils have missed Williamson at both ends of the court. North Carolina played well enough to beat Duke with or without him, but the Virginia Tech loss Tuesday – against a team with no inside presence to speak of and, presumably, no way to handle Williamson – was definitely a moment where his absence was deeply felt.

The sudden yanking of Joey Baker’s redshirt in game 27 may have had more to do with Jack White’s equally sudden 3-point mackeysasseritis – now an increasingly unfathomable 0-for-28 after starting the season 22-for-55 – but it’s also a symptom of Duke searching for answers in the void left behind by Williamson.

Duke isn’t the same team without him, regardless of how many other McDonald’s all-Americans there may be on the bench, and you have to believe Williamson knows that. If winning matters to him, he’ll be back before it’s too late.

Walking away to protect his draft status and prepare for the NBA may be the smart thing for Williamson to do, from a purely selfish perspective, but it also doesn’t seem like the kind of thing Williamson would do.

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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.