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CHARLOTTE — They stood elbow-to-elbow on the steps surrounding the gamers’ tunnel at Spectrum Middle, a few of them crowding for a viewing angle, others holding cell telephones excessive above their heads.

It is not usually convention match produces a “bear in mind the place you have been” second, particularly earlier than the sport really begins. However there was a special power Thursday night time right here on the ACC match, a din that adopted Zion Williamson from his first emergence onto the ground to the primary thunderous, above-the-rim dunk that introduced his return to well being to his remaining tally of 29 factors and 14 rebounds in Duke’s 84-72 victory over Syracuse.

After lacking six video games over a three-week stretch that sparked a nationwide debate over whether or not Williamson ought to play once more this season, probably the most thrilling school basketball participant of the last decade didn’t simply come again Thursday from a knee damage the best way most human beings would come again from a knee damage.

Like every thing with Williamson since his school profession started, it was a supersized, otherworldly comeback designed to drop jaws and provides NBA executives dry heaves over the Might 14 draft lottery that guarantees to vary the route of 1 franchise and depart a number of others cursing their luck.

Williamson’s 13-for-13 efficiency from the sphere after a 22-day layoff didn’t simply remind everybody why Duke surged to No. 1 in February and has regarded just like the nationwide championship favourite when totally wholesome, it accentuated the gulf between Williamson and each different professional prospect in school basketball.

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As a result of with Williamson, it’s not simply the distinctive physique, the power with which he can end across the rim or his occasional flash of ability on the perimeter. Williamson, fairly merely, likes to play — a easy however important aspect of the whole bundle he brings to a basketball staff, and one which was misplaced on the Twitter crowd yelling at him to close it down after his left Nike exploded again on Feb. 20.

After that minor knee damage towards North Carolina, after all, Williamson didn’t want to return again. And but when he did, he performed as if his future earnings trusted it.

Geared up with a custom-made pair of Kyrie Irving signature sneakers, Williamson sprinted and rebounded and dove on the ground with abandon. He poked away balls, he bullied his solution to rebounds, he referred to as for lob dunks and provided his teammates a smile after each constructive play. 

About the one factor he didn’t do was shoot free throws effectively (2-for-9). However once you rack up 5 dunks, trigger 5 steals and are available inside two rebounds of a double-double within the first half, the present is kind of already over.

Despite the fact that you solely wanted to see his first viral second to grasp that Williamson was certainly again — a steal at halfcourt, a launch from one step contained in the free-throw line and an assault on the rim simply two minutes in — he went forward and provided up a number of extra anyway.

And whereas Thursday was huge for Duke as a result of it was a reminder that the middling staff they usually regarded just like the previous three weeks is now not related to their NCAA match prospects, Friday’s semifinal matchup is important by itself.

North Carolina beat Duke twice with out Williamson, together with final Saturday in Chapel Hill. Ought to Duke flip the tables on a impartial court docket with its finest participant wholesome, its argument for a No. 1 seed will probably be rock stable.

Observe Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.


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