CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Zion Williamson made his return to the floor on Thursday night in the ACC Tournament, as promised, and his show-stopping performance in Duke's 84-72 win against Syracuse could be described simply: as advertised.
Williamson scored 29 points to lead the Blue Devils past the Orange and into a semifinal game vs. UNC on Friday to give Duke a third game against the Tar Heels.
The hype around Zion has exceeded anything that we've seen before in college basketball. It's the perfect combination of coach, program, college star and once-in-a-generation NBA prospect, creating a firestorm of interest and attention that has pushed past the absurd and been normalized as an accepted pillar of conversation in the sport for the season. Mike Krzyzewski explained it simply before Williamson had even played a single second of college basketball.
"We don't have a lot of one-name stars," Krzyzewski said in October, noting that status is rare in the NBA, and almost never applied to a college basketball star. Williamson's millions of Instagram followers couldn't wait to see what he looked like at Duke, and those misled enough to remain doubters figured those viral video moments wouldn't be able to translate to the college game.
What's followed is perhaps one of the most transformational individual seasons the college game has ever seen. The saga itself has been nothing short of epic. To have not just an injury, but an injury caused by an exploding shoe in the opening seconds of the biggest rivalry in the sport, took the hysteria to another level. All of the sudden, Zion became the lightning rod for complex big-picture topics like amateurism and the one-and-done system. But most of those conversations didn't have all that much to do with Zion Williamson the human being or the excellent brand of basketball that he had shown on the floor to that point.
That's what made Thursday night such a relief, not just for Duke fans but for college basketball as a whole. When Zion was on the bench in team gear, the conversations remained off the court. When Zion returned to the floor, the conversations returned to what was actually happening on the court.
Williamson was a stud, reminding everyone why he's the ACC Player of the Year and still the frontrunner for National Player of the Year. Though the star himself noted that he "couldn't throw a tennis ball into the ocean from the free throw line" after going 2 for 7 from the charity stripe, he was a perfect 13 for 13 from the field. So much time was spent wringing hands about the big-picture implications of the injury and what Zion should or shouldn't do with his fame and potential future earnings, the joy of basketball was lost.
Krzyzewski joked that he was the one who holding Williamson back from returning, but the star deflected the notion only to reiterate that he was appreciative of the support from everyone within the program during his recovery.
"I know I was ready to come back a few days ago. I got some reps in with the team. But I would like to say this, there was never any pressure for me to rush back when I wasn't ready. So I thank coach, the assistant coaches and my teammates for that, they always told me come back when I'm ready and I felt ready a few days ago and I mean it was good to get back."
Getting back means getting back to the form that we've seen and come to expect from Duke when its at full strength. And at totally full strength, this team has only one loss on the profile: against Gonzaga, on a neutral floor. Following the loss at North Carolina, Duke's players and coaches talked about resetting the clock with a "new season" starting. The truth is that getting Williamson back in the lineup returned things to how they were: with the Blue Devils looking every bit the part of a national title favorite.
The conversations about Duke's seeding for the NCAA Tournament, and how the selection committee will judge the Blue Devils' profile with and without Zion, will continue into the weekend and be decided on the court with games against other one-seed hopefuls in North Carolina and, potentially, Virginia as well. If Duke wins out and Zion continues to play at this level, it's going to be hard to build an argument against this team landing on the top line.