College basketball’s biggest weekend will be missing college basketball’s biggest star. After Michigan State knocked off Duke 68-67 on Sunday to advance to the Final Four, the Blue Devils are out of the NCAA Tournament — and that means we won’t see forward Zion Williamson again until the NBA draft. (Presumably.) CBS had invested a lot in following Williamson’s every move during the tournament, and with good cause. By at least one metric, Williamson had the best season in recent college history. But that’s all in the past now. So how weird is it that Zion won’t be present for the tournament’s finale in Minneapolis? And what can we make of his brief, brilliant stay in the college game, possibly as one of the final megastars of the one-and-done era?
Williamson has spent most of the season as the heavy betting favorite to win the men’s Naismith college player of the year award. His money-line odds were as high as -700 (that’s roughly 88 percent without removing the vig) before his midseason injury, and they currently sit around -300 (75 percent). Other players could potentially take the honor when it is announced April 7, but it would be a surprise if Williamson were not the winner.
If Zion does pick up the award, he will become only the third freshman (joining Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis) and 12th underclassman to do so in the history of the honor. It’s an elite award to earn, having been won by the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Michael Jordan, in addition to KD and AD. But it hasn’t exactly been out of the ordinary for the Final Four to move on without the nation’s best player. Through 2018, the Naismith award winner has seen his team make the Final Four just 48 percent of the time — meaning roughly half of college basketball’s very best stars since 19691 have watched the Final Four from home. Williamson wouldn’t be the first to fit that description, and he likely wouldn’t be the last.
But even among players of the year, Williamson would be unusually good — particularly by the standards of some recent winners:2
|Year||Player||College||Pos.||Class||Final four?||Total||Per 40|
|1997||Tim Duncan||Wake Forest||C||Sr.||10.4||.367|
|2008||Tyler Hansbrough||North Carolina||F||Jr.||✓||8.7||.272|
|1998||Antawn Jamison||North Carolina||F||Jr.||✓||8.3||.271|
|2011||Jimmer Fredette||Brigham Young||G||Sr.||8.5||.256|
|2010||Evan Turner||Ohio State||G||Jr.||6.8||.247|
|2004||Jameer Nelson||Saint Joseph’s||G||Sr.||6.6||.243|
|2006||J. J. Redick||Duke||G||Sr.||7.8||.233|
|2017||Frank Mason III||Kansas||G||Sr.||7.5||.230|
|2003||T. J. Ford||Texas||G||So.||✓||4.3||.155|
On a per-40-minute basis, Williamson would have the most win shares of any Naismith winner since Andrew Bogut in 2005 (Bogut went No. 1 overall in the NBA draft that summer) and the fifth-most since 1996, period. And unlike some of the other names on the list above, Williamson wasn’t a one-man show dragging a bunch of weak teammates along. Duke ranked fourth in our pre-tournament Elo ratings — higher than the team of anyone ranked ahead of Zion in win shares per 40 minutes except Elton Brand (whose own Blue Devils ranked first going into the 1999 tourney).
In that regard, maybe the best comparison for Williamson’s freshman season was that of Davis on the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats — a stellar, standout individual year on a highly ranked squad full of other elite NBA prospects. But while Davis got to the Final Four and ultimately won the NCAA championship, Williamson and Duke fell short, relegating him to a separate list of freshman phenoms — one including Durant and Michael Beasley, whose individual efficiency in 2008 was (amazingly) even greater than Zion’s this year — on teams that couldn’t get to the tournament’s third weekend.
The end of Duke’s season won’t diminish the personal success Williamson had during his one NCAA season, nor will it affect his presumptive status as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. And few fans outside Durham will be crying for Duke, which had its chances to close out Michigan State late on Sunday but was unable to do so (in large part because Williamson took only one shot in the game’s final six-and-a-half minutes). Even so, the Final Four won’t be quite the same without Williamson’s dizzying array of highlight-reel drives, dunks and swats. Instead, the Season of Zion Williamson will come to an end with Zion Williamson nowhere in sight.
From ABC News:
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