CHARLOTTE — They stood elbow-to-elbow on the steps surrounding the players’ tunnel at Spectrum Center, some of them crowding for a viewing angle, others holding cell phones high above their heads.
It isn’t often that a conference tournament produces a “remember where you were” moment, especially before the game actually starts. But there was a different energy Thursday night here at the ACC tournament, a din that followed Zion Williamson from his first emergence onto the floor to the first thunderous, above-the-rim dunk that announced his return to health to his final tally of 29 points and 14 rebounds in Duke’s 84-72 victory over Syracuse.
After missing six games over a three-week stretch that sparked a national debate over whether Williamson should play again this season, the most exciting college basketball player of the decade didn’t just come back Thursday from a knee injury the way most human beings would come back from a knee injury.
Like everything with Williamson since his college career began, it was a supersized, otherworldly comeback designed to drop jaws and give NBA executives dry heaves over the May 14 draft lottery that promises to change the direction of one franchise and leave several others cursing their luck.
Williamson’s 13-for-13 performance from the field after a 22-day layoff didn’t just remind everyone why Duke surged to No. 1 in February and has looked like the national championship favorite when fully healthy, it accentuated the gulf between Williamson and every other pro prospect in college basketball.
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Because with Williamson, it’s not just the unique physique, the force with which he can finish around the rim or his occasional flash of skill on the perimeter. Williamson, quite simply, loves to play — a simple but essential element of the entire package he brings to a basketball team, and one that was lost on the Twitter crowd yelling at him to shut it down after his left Nike exploded back on Feb. 20.
After that minor knee injury against North Carolina, of course, Williamson didn’t need to come back. And yet when he did, he played as if his future earnings depended on it.
Equipped with a custom-made pair of Kyrie Irving signature shoes, Williamson sprinted and rebounded and dove on the floor with abandon. He poked away balls, he bullied his way to rebounds, he called for lob dunks and offered his teammates a smile after every positive play.
About the only thing he didn’t do was shoot free throws well (2-for-9). But when you rack up five dunks, cause five steals and come within two rebounds of a double-double in the first half, the show is more or less already over.
Even though you only needed to see his first viral moment to understand that Williamson was indeed back — a steal at halfcourt, a launch from one step inside the free-throw line and an assault on the rim just two minutes in — he went ahead and offered up several more anyway.
And while Thursday was massive for Duke because it was a reminder that the middling team they often looked like the past three weeks is no longer relevant to their NCAA tournament prospects, Friday’s semifinal matchup is significant on its own.
North Carolina beat Duke twice without Williamson, including last Saturday in Chapel Hill. Should Duke turn the tables on a neutral court with its best player healthy, its argument for a No. 1 seed will be rock solid.
Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.