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A Look At How Zion Williamson’s Return Has Changed Things For Duke

Including in some ways you may not have noticed.

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ACC Basketball Tournament - Semifinals
 CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 15: Coby White #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts against Jordan Goldwire #14 of the Duke Blue Devils during their game in the semifinals of the 2019 Men’s ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 15, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

I doubt even Zion Williamson himself can remember the last time the word “little” was used to describe him or anything he does. Indeed, his return to the court in the ACC Tournament has been anything but little: no amount of superlatives can describe his 29 points on 13-for-13 shooting performance against Syracuse, or how he put the Blue Devils on his back en route to a one point victory over UNC. But hiding beneath the acrobatic dunks, unfathomably agile finishes, and rebounds seemingly grabbed from outer space, there were plenty of “little” impacts of Zion’s return that, quite understandably, have fallen under the radar.

Consider, for example, the performance from a player not named Zion that had the most impact on the past two nights: Jordan Goldwire’s defensive brilliance. Against Syracuse, Buddy Boeheim’s hot shooting corresponded unfortunately with Cam Reddish’s foul trouble and almost single-handedly kept Syracuse in the game in the second half. But Goldwire came in and took Boeheim almost completely out of the game. Against the Tar Heels, Goldwire stuck to Cam Johnson like glue, preventing the UNC star from getting any comfortable outside shots despite a sizable height difference.

Goldwire’s minutes have been limited throughout the year due to his offensive limitations (for what it’s worth, Goldwire seems to have finally accepted these limitations, as he’s turned down a handful of open threes these past two nights that he might have shot, and likely missed, earlier in the year). But Zion’s presence and offensive brilliance has allowed Coach K to insert Goldwire into the lineup with a singular purpose: shut down the opposition’s best three point shooter. And, as he’s done quite often since his coming out party at Louisville, Goldwire performed his defensive task with aplomb.

Without Zion acting as a one-man wrecking crew on the interior of the zone against Syracuse, pairing Goldwire with Tre Jones in the backcourt, both of whom struggle significantly with their outside shot, might be a death knell against the 2-3 zone. The same could be said against UNC, as Cam Reddish’s struggles and Kenny Williams stellar (but, let’s admit it, floppy) defense against RJ Barrett limited Duke’s offensive options. But Williamson merited so much attention in both matchups that unlikely scorers emerged from unlikely lineups: Goldwire and Antonio Vrankovich are now 5-for-5 shooting in the ACC Tournament. Without Zion, Coach K may have been forced to play Alex O’Connell to replace Reddish’s outside shooting to ensure the offense did not completely stagnate. With him, the offense still worked without a top-tier outside shooting threat, and the defense benefitted significantly from Goldwire’s presence.

The other impact that may not get the attention it should is Williamson’s ability to draw fouls on opposing big men. Against Syracuse, Zion’s 2-for-9 performance from the charity stripe was disappointing, but easily attributed to the rust felt by mere mortals after three weeks off the court. But even if the fouls did not yield points, they did take the Orange’s Paschal Chukwu almost entirely out of the game (the starting center played only seven minutes before fouling out) and forced third string big Bourama Sidibe to play 14 minutes (in which he didn’t score a point and only grabbed five rebounds). And all that is against a 2-3 zone, a defense for which one of the primary benefits is the ability to keep players out of foul trouble.

Against UNC, Zion once again forced the opposing big to foul out. This time it was Garrison Brooks, who lasted a more respectable 22 minutes, but was severely limited in those minutes, finishing with only two points and five rebounds. For all the talk of the Tar Heels’ depth, Sterling Manley’s injury has left them without a second true center, which gave Zion more freedom to attack the offensive glass. Imagine Duke’s final offensive possession with Brooks still in the game: Zion’s incredible second-chance basket would’ve been much more difficult with the 6-foot-9, 230 pound Brooks on the court. Against another deep, big team in Florida State, the game might turn on Zion’s ability to put the opposing big men in awkward situations in which they draw unfortunate fouls.

The box score tells a pretty compelling story of Zion OMG Williamson’s return to the court. But just as important has been the way his presence influenced his teammates, allowing them to fill more natural roles, and the way the opponent had to change its gameplan to account for a player with a once-in-a-generation skillset. As March advances, these secondary, “little” impacts of Zion’s presence may be more important to Duke’s success than any of the large numbers he puts up in the box score.

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