NEW YORK – Zion Williamson was sitting in the New York Knicks locker room at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, stripped down to his undershirt. His Duke Blue Devils had just been through a slog of a game. They'd missed their first 15 3-pointers, not making one from deep until nearly 29 minutes into the game. They'd turned the ball over 19 times. Williamson himself had gotten in foul trouble early and fouled out late, netting four charging calls, most of them which Duke fans (and game announcers) found pretty dubious.
And yet No. 2 Duke had pulled out the 69-58 win against 12th-ranked Texas Tech, who boast the nation's top-rated defense, and the Blue Devils did it by playing the Red Raiders' style better than the Red Raiders did.
We don't think of this Duke team as an elite defensive team, but so far this season that's exactly what the Blue Devils are. They held Texas Tech without a field goal for the final six-plus minutes of the game. Tre Jones swiped six steals, one shy of Shane Battier's Duke freshman record; Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said Jones won the game for his team, and called him one of the best perimeter defenders Duke has ever had.
It was the type of win that this uber-talented Duke team – the most talented team in the country, with four likely 2019 first-round picks and perhaps the top three picks in the upcoming NBA Draft – will need more of if they want to turn that freshman talent into another national title for Coach K.
New York being New York, though, the most popular question in Duke's locker room had nothing to do with Duke's national championship aspirations, or even college basketball at all. The question was basically this: Yo, Zion. You want to play for the New York Knicks or what?
Williamson smiled. His 6-foot-7 body was squeezed into a locker with his teammate, walk-on Mike Buckmire. Williamson exuded humility. He spoke of what a thrill it was to play his first game at Madison Square Garden: "It's just an honor to be here."
He rattled off his all-time favorite Knicks: Bernard King, Patrick Ewing. He spoke about how great Kristaps Porzingis is, and how much hard work he needs to put in to get to that level. He mentioned that he purposefully didn't sit at Porzingis' locker; he sat at Kevin Knox's locker instead.
"He's a rookie – that's what I'm trying to be," Williamson laughed.
That was cool and charming and all, but New York being New York, the question came back to: So, how about them Knicks?
"I think this is RJ's team," Williamson told reporters.
Then the 18-year-old Williamson shouted across the locker room to another 18-year-old, Duke freshman RJ Barrett, who is Williamson's most likely competition to be the No. 1 pick in 2019.
"RJ!" he shouted. "Do you want to play for the Knicks?" No answer. "RJ! DO YOU WANT TO PLAY FOR THE KNICKS?"
Barrett gave the correct political answer: That he would be thrilled to play for whatever team drafts him.
But back to Williamson and the Knicks.
"If they draft me, I would love to play for the Knicks," Williamson said. "I don't really care where I go. Just the experience of being in the NBA. Whoever wants me, whoever sees the most in me, that's where I want to be."
This is both the joy and the disappointment of big-time college basketball. Seeing the joyful innocence of soon-to-be NBA players like Williamson and Barrett – not to mention of Tre Jones and Cameron Reddish – playing in the Garden for the first time was a thing of beauty. Having all sorts of big-time NBA names in attendance – Adam Silver and Jimmy Butler, David Robinson and Trae Young – upped their excitement level even more. Zion Williamson is a legit Internet sensation, an 18-year-old celebrity who has 2.1 million Instagram followers, someone who has been signing autographs for years, and yet he was still humbled by playing at this basketball palace.
"I feel like I live for moments like this," Williamson told me afterward. "The Garden, this was my first time, and it was a great experience. Just to walk onto that court is something special."
And yet the truth is that all this college stuff is so temporal, a five-month stopover before they move on to the bigger and more important step: To achieve their dream and to play at the Garden as a real, honest-to-goodness, highly paid NBA player. Williamson, one executive told me, is like a more athletic, stronger Julius Randle; the same executive told me he sees a lot of James Harden's slithery offensive skills in Barrett. (For what it's worth, Barrett appreciated the comparison, and said Harden is one of his favorite NBA players to watch and to study.)
Thursday night at the Garden truly was something special: Two 18-year-old basketball players stepped onto this revered court for the first time. But the next time you'll see Zion Williamson or RJ Barrett at The World's Most Famous Arena, it won't be in a Duke uniform. It'll either be playing for the New York Knicks, or it'll be playing against them. And that's what we're all really waiting for, isn't it?