Aaron Craft was my idol for four important years of my adolescent life. From making steals in the Final Four against Kansas, to scoring ten straight points to upset No. 2 Indiana and Victor Oladipo on the road, to finishing off a tournament win against Iowa St. by first taking a charge and then hitting a buzzer beating three. Another fond memory he gave me was the obliteration of Duke that he helped administered during the 2011-12 season. Ohio State led the whole game, winning in 85-63 as the Buckeye fans in the Schottenstein Center reveled in the achievement for months. The beat down was so brutal that even Coach K submitted to defeat, summarized in his post-game comment, “Sometimes you get your butt kicked, and tonight, we got our butts kicked.”
The stand out highlight of this game was not a Jared Sullinger dunk, a step back three pointer made by Willie Buford, or even a defensive play by Craft himself. Rather it was when Craft drove to the basket, jump stopped, and attempted to throw a pass between Mason Plumlee’s legs to his main man Sullinger. It bounced off of Plumlee’s knee, went through his legs in the opposite direction that Craft had intended for it to go in, yet Craft immediately sprinted to the ball to lay it up over Plumlee’s outstretched hand. It’s not an understatement to say that eleven year-old me lost his mind watching that play unfold. It was everything I wanted, the undersized Ohio kid sticking it to Duke: The Evil Empire of College Basketball.
Hating Duke is one of the accepted doctrines of being a sports fan. Duke is hated so much that they have been branded the Patriots of college basketball. Hated so much than the historic face of their program, Christian Laettner, starred in a 30 for 30 documentary called “I Hate Christian Laettner”. Hated so much that someone made a pretend tournament for the most hated college basketball player of all time and the four “regions” were the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and Duke.
That Duke bracket of hatred included classics like Laettner, JJ Reddick, Shane Battier, the Plumlee brothers, and definitely would include Grayson Allen if it was updated. Zion wouldn’t even come close to that list. For the most part, those guys were diminutive, underdog white guys who relied on shooting, trash talking, and dirty plays. Zion Williamson on the other hand has always been a superstar, as he’s much more like a machine meant to wreck human life more than being an actual human himself. But simply a lack of hatred shouldn’t make me cheer for Duke. I still wanted the Blue Devils to go down the last few years as they sported top prospects like Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley. Yet, watching Duke pull victory out of the jaws of defeat against both North Carolina and most recently against UCF, I realized that subconsciously I wanted Duke to eke out the win so Zion could be vindicated. Zion brainwashed me into being a Duke fan, and I have a feeling that I am not the only one of his followers.
This Zion cult is even more impressive than his ridiculous forty plus vertical with a 6’7”, 285 pound frame. Some may explain it as just further evidence of our shifting basketball culture. Fans today root for players, not teams. They pick their guys, and want them to succeed no matter how they portray themselves. Who cares if Zion sold out for a championship in college, he flies down the court like an eighteen wheeler down the highway, a threat to literally murder anyone who stands in his way. What little kid doesn’t see a Zion dunk and immediately go practice it on a mini hoop?
While it is certainly true that Zion lifers have spawned this year just like they did early in the careers of LeBron and Kobe, I think there’s something more going on. Why does someone like me, a professing NBA nerd and purist, still get drawn into forsaking my Duke hatred and instead cheer for a Devils win? It’s because of how Zion acts on the court.
Most of basketball’s athletic freaks are laid back and almost look like they’re calculating on the court. Think of LeBron, who even in his early days still paced himself. Sure, he would have dunks where it look like he had rocket boots on, followed by a shout and a chest thump, but even then, it seemed as though LeBron had just decided he was going to dunk on the possession. It was instinct, but it wasn’t spontaneous. Maybe you’d counter me by talking about Giannis, who seems very emotional and passionate when he plays. But once again, he’s too upright. His moves are usually spins or step arounds into dunks over people, as he extends his freakish arms and drops the ball through the rim. That’s still believable. It’s plausible that there could be a 6’11” human being who uses his combination of long arms and ball skills to finish dunks before defenders have a chance to do anything.
There is no explanation for Zion. When you watch him you first check to see if something is wrong with your TV. Why is this tank in a Duke uniform moving so fast that the camera can’t keep up with him? Simultaneously, why did that tank explode and blow up the rim, then crash back down to earth, and finally jump back up and roar like a Lion that had just killed its prey. That’s why I cheer for Zion. He’s raw, not calculated.
And speaking of that Zion roar, that’s another reason for why he’s swung so many fans: the passion with which he plays the game. Young guys who grew up as stars in AAU typically aren’t very engaged when they do not have the ball. Just look at Ben Simmons, who has clearly displayed at the professional level that he’s a defensive stopper, yet in college, he was so bored that it seemed like he was watching the Players Only Broadcast of an NBA game. Zion is the opposite. Zion acts like a cross between Draymond Green and Patrick Beverly, communicating and battling with his unique and switchable body, while also fighting and scrapping for every loose ball. We all our stars to be amazing, but we also don’t feel like they’re above us, like how LeBron seems completely separated from everybody in the way he carries himself. Zion is athletically on a plane no normal person could even scratch, but emotionally, he and the common basketball fan are of the same origin. They both love the game and sacrifice everything for it when they’re out there on the court.
I think I’ve made clear the appeal of Zion. The next thing to do is to speculate about his NBA future. He’s the first 100%, can’t miss number one prospect since Anthony Davis in 2012, and I would go as far as to say he’s a better prospect than AD. The Playoffs in the West have already been decided, and in the East all that is left is a three way battle for the eight that includes the Heat, Magic, and Hornets. That gives us around 15 possible Zion landing spots, so I went ahead and gave a quick thought to each possibility, going from most likely to least likely.
New York Knicks – Everyone would get understandably excited, but I would still be upset because they don’t deserve it.
Phoenix Suns – Awful. Please Adam Silver, don’t reward incompetence with Zion.
Cleveland Cavaliers – Also awful. I’m tired of Cleveland getting bailed out by the draft every year. Silver, you might want to call up Stern and ask about the frozen letter.
Chicago Bulls – Not sure how I’d feel, just like how I’m unsure about the Bulls current roster. Zion would be a great foil to Lauri Markkanen though.
Atlanta Hawks – Lob City 2.0 except they don’t hate each other this time? Sign me up for the Atlanta bandwagon.
Dallas Mavericks – Give me a moment. This is just too beautiful. We are not worthy to watch Luka, Zion, or even Porzingis on the court at the same time. Please somebody, anybody out there in the NBA front office, make this happen.
Memphis Grizzlies – I’m sorry Memphis, you really deserve this, not even Zion can make your franchise interesting. Hard pass.
Washington Wizards – You know that scene in The Office where Michael Scott screams, “No!!!!!!!!!!!”, after he sees Toby? Well the Wizards are the Toby of the NBA.
New Orleans Pelicans – It would be a huge letdown for Zion to get stuck in the NBA’s worst market and franchise, but it would kind of be poetic justice to replace Anthony Davis with the best prospect since Anthony Davis. But still, this would suck.
Los Angeles Lakers – Now this would be crazy. Just think of all the media traction you could get out of this the first day after the lottery. Will the Lakers win the Finals with Zion? Should the Lakers trade Zion for Anthony Davis? How quickly will LeBron force Zion to sign with Klutch? Should the Lakers trade LeBron and build around Zion? Did the NBA rig the draft lottery for the Lakers? The answer to these crazy questions is yes the NBA rigged the lottery for the Lakers.
Minnesota Timberwolves – Similar to the Cavs and Suns, an incompetent franchise should not be bailed out with winning multiple number one picks, so this is a thumbs down. Also, while I’m on the Wolves, has there ever been two guys with more of a difference in likability than Zion and Andrew Wiggins.
Charlotte Hornets – The Hornets actually are not a Zion landing spot because Michael Jordan does not draft guys from Duke. “And with the number one overall pick, the Charlotte Hornets select Luke Maye from North Carolina.”
Orlando Magic – Even if Orlando has some interesting potential, putting him on this team is too risky. The last thing I want to see on the ESPN Bottom Line is, “Zion Williamson diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome after speaking with Markelle Fultz’s personal doctor.”
Miami Heat – Probably won’t matter because I think the Heat will make the playoffs. Otherwise, this could be interesting in 2023 when the Heat get rid of all their bad contracts and find a way to sign Zaire Wade and LeBron James Jr. straight out of high school.
Philadelphia 76ers – Yes, this is possible. The Sacramento Kings will be the fourteenth team in the lottery, and their pick goes to the Celtics if it’s anywhere in the second through fifth slots, and it goes to the Sixers if its first overall. As soon as this happens, I’m tracking down Sam Hinkie to tell him as tears roll down my face, “You were right. It was all worth it.” This followed by me writing a will that leaves all of my possessions to Zion.
So in terms of real possibilities (and unfortunately, I don’t think the Sixers fall under that), these are the three best landing spots for Zion in order.
- Dallas Mavericks
- Atlanta Hawks
- New York Knicks
But even if Zion goes to (gulp) the Washington Wizards or some awful place then that, I’ll still end up cheering for that team for years. Because Zion is that awesome.