Duke freshman Zion Williamson left Wednesday night’s game against North Carolina with what was called a mild right knee sprain and did not return. ESPN.com’s panel of college basketball experts discussed what could be next for Williamson and for Duke.
Given Williamson’s NBA draft stock, should he shut it down if this turns out to be a multiple-week injury?
Myron Medcalf, Senior College Basketball Writer: Yes. Joel Embiid faced a similar scenario before the 2013-14 Big 12 tournament. He suffered a serious back injury late in the season and never returned for Kansas. He was still a top-three pick in that year’s draft, and he’s a premier player in the NBA now. I don’t think Zion’s status will change if he’s out for two to three weeks. He’s still the No. 1 pick. And he’s also going to get a bunch of endorsement money the moment he enters the draft. It’s best to preserve what’s coming and sit the rest of the season in that scenario. But I’m not Zion. He can do what he wants. A lot of folks want to see him come back. He’s really close to his teammates. What he should do is up to him.
Jeff Borzello, College Basketball Insider: If he wants to, sure. I think Duke should leave it up to him. I think Zion is too competitive and his pursuit of a national championship too important for him to actually shut it down, especially if it’s something that will keep him out only a couple of weeks. That said, if Zion is worried about aggravating the injury and there’s a legitimate risk of that happening, I’m not going to be one to blame him for wanting to shut it down. I don’t think he will shut it down, though.
John Gasaway, College Basketball Writer: Naturally, that’s his call, and I really don’t think someone named Zion Williamson in early 2019 can make a decision that won’t lead to him promptly becoming an NBA mainstay. Speaking of “naturally,” any answer here falls under the heading of having been blessed by a medical professional with Zion’s best interests at heart. But no, he shouldn’t shut it down. Doing so would create its own set of concerns and speculation, whereas hopping on the court — again, assuming he’s 100 percent — and being Zion would be the shortest distance between these two points.
How does Duke adjust if Williamson is out for an extended amount of time?
Borzello: It doesn’t. It’s going to be more than an adjustment, given how important Zion was to what Duke did at both ends of the floor. The Blue Devils are going to have to completely change what they do offensively, unless it’s just going to be isolation sets for RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish the rest of the season (which, by the way, isn’t the worst offensive strategy.) Duke will either go with a bigger lineup, playing Javin DeLaurier alongside Marques Bolden down low, or slot in Jack White for more of a perimeter-oriented attack. We got a preview of what Duke looks like without Zion when he missed most of the Florida State game — and Mike Krzyzewski did a little bit of both, as White played 25 minutes, and Bolden and DeLaurier also played extended minutes. It was more of the same against Carolina. Either way, it’s a severe drop-off at both ends for the Blue Devils.
Medcalf: That’s the benefit of having two additional top-five NBA picks. You’re still one of America’s most talented teams without him. But the team won’t be the same. He’s too valuable. Entering Wednesday’s matchup against North Carolina, Duke had averaged 110 points per 100 possessions and allowed just 0.85 PPP with Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett on the floor together and Zion on the bench, per hooplens.com. With Reddish, Barrett and Zion playing together, the team had averaged 119 points per 100 possessions. But both groups held opponents to 0.85 PPP on defense. I think we’ll obviously see more Javin DeLaurier and Jack White. And I think the Zion-less team will look like the one that finished the Gonzaga loss at the Maui Invitational, in which Barrett just attacked, attacked, attacked. If he’s paired with the Cam Reddish from the Virginia game (5-for-8 from the 3-point line vs. the Cavaliers), Duke will be fine. But I’m saying all of this after watching the Blue Devils implode without Zion against their biggest rival. Zion’s impact and skills will be more apparent when Duke has to operate without him.
Gasaway: The adjustment is very likely to entail shooting more 3s because you’re not going to find another 20-point scorer who makes 75 percent of his 2s on that bench. Maybe if Jack White delivers on the flashes he has shown from the perimeter, the Blue Devils could minimize the drop-off. Conceivably, we’d see even more RJ Barrett with the ball in his hands, and based on the triple-double against NC State, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Of course, Zion is also a big loss on defense, and I’m not sure you can scheme your way around losing a player with that mobility and length.
Can Duke win a national title without Zion Williamson in a Blue Devils uniform?
Medcalf: No. To beat Gonzaga, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and the other elite teams in the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils will need the most versatile player in the country. This is a landscape filled with positionless players, and Zion is the best of the bunch. He can guard any player on the floor. He can play any offensive position on the floor. He can hit the switch and spark a run when he wants. The Blue Devils aren’t America’s best team without Zion. And I don’t think they’ll be national champions without him, either.
Borzello: I don’t think so. If you talk to coaches around the ACC or coaches who have faced Duke, Zion is their biggest concern. You simply can’t prepare for someone like him in terms of trying to guard him. And the underrated part of his game is the impact he makes defensively, jumping in passing lanes and blocking shots around the rim. The Blue Devils’ lack of shooting is less of an issue because they have three guys who can go get a bucket at any time. They square up with you and say, “We have three top-five picks and you don’t. Try to beat us.” Without Zion, the offense is too limited. The Blue Devils will essentially have three non-shooters or poor shooters and two non-creators on the court at all times. I still think they’re good, just not a title-winning team.
Gasaway: This is where the rest of the country says poor Duke, it has only two of the top three projected NBA draft picks instead of three of the top four. I understand the sentiment, but two things can be true about this situation. The Blue Devils would still be insanely talented without Zion and they would be without possibly the best interior scorer of the 3-point era and a tenacious defender. Plus, this isn’t an ordinary “no great teams” season nationally, and an opponent such as Gonzaga might have been too much for Duke even with Zion (as indeed the Bulldogs were in Maui). Duke can still win a title, but this lowers the Blue Devils’ chances significantly.
Given the unknowns facing Williamson and Duke, what does history tell us about top teams heading into the stretch without their star player?
Borzello: If an indefinite recovery timeline is all we get, then the biggest storyline in college basketball is going to be speculation on if and when Zion will return. There’s pretty recent precedent for a Duke player getting injured without a definitive timetable for return: Kyrie Irving in 2011. Granted, it was very different. Irving suffered a right toe injury in an early December game against Butler, and there was endless speculation on when or whether Irving would return. He ended up coming back for the NCAA tournament but struggled in his first two games before going for 28 points in a Sweet 16 loss to Arizona. The speculation is going to be at an even higher level with Zion because, well, he’s Zion.
Medcalf: Kenyon Martin got hurt in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament in 2000. That Cincinnati team looked unstoppable. Nothing since has really compared. Jeff mentioned Irving’s injury at Duke. There was Embiid at Kansas before the Big 12 tournament five years ago. But we have not seen an elite player on the top team in America, the favorite to secure the No. 1 slot in the NBA draft and win the Wooden Award, suddenly go down with an injury at this juncture.
Gasaway: Kenyon Martin is the only parallel that comes to mind, and that was a big event. The thing about this injury, though, is the shoe. It was just such a freak occurrence, and we’ll always remember not just the basketball impact but also the visual event. No, I’m not sure there is a precedent.