Duke’s Williamson breaks the mold

Big as an NFL player and as athletic the NBA’s best, Duke’s freshman phenom is unlike any player in college basketball

Zion Williamson leads a star-studded freshman class that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski hopes will bring a sixth title to Durham. (Christopher Katsarov / The Canadian Press via AP)

DURHAM — It didn’t take long into Zion Williamson’s Duke career for the obvious question to be asked.

“Why are you on a basketball court?”

Listed at 6-foot-7, 285 pounds, Williamson certainly looks more like an NFL tight end than a future NBA star.

Consider: There is currently only one player on an NBA roster who weighs as much as the Duke freshman — Clippers center Boban Marjanovic, who outweighs Williamson by five pounds, and is 7-foot-3.

Even more incredibly, Williamson weighs more than 43 s7-footers currently playing in the NBA. He’s an inch taller and 15 pounds heavier than Rob Gronkowski. There are only 14 Carolina Panthers heavier than him: Nine offensive linemen, four defensive tackles and end Julius Peppers.

Even if Williamson is only 270 — which coach Mike Krzyzewski has said is his likely playing weight for the season — he’s heavier than all but 10 NBA players and outweighs 38 7-footers.

“Zion is a unique player,” Krzyzewski said. “Not only is he position-less, his body type — you can’t say, ‘Well, he’s like somebody.’”

So, seriously, why isn’t Williamson wearing a helmet and pads, instead of joining freshman stars R.J. Barrett, Tre Jones and Cam Reddish on the hardwood for Duke?

“I didn’t get this size until my junior year of high school,” Williamson explained, “and my high school doesn’t have a football team.”

Football’s loss will be the Blue Devils’ gain, at least for one season.

While Williamson’s size is impressive and nearly unprecedented, he’s far from a gravity-bound big man. In Duke’s Canada exhibitions and the season-opening Countdown to Craziness scrimmage, Williamson drove the lane, dove for loose balls and, most notably, dunked.

“What he does with his body is remarkable,” Krzyzewski said.

Twice in the Countdown scrimmage, play had to be stopped after a Williamson dunk because he turned the net inside out with the power generated by the slam.

“It’s like a fun game, and you just get people excited for the season,” he said afterward. “It’s probably the only time I’m going to have the luxury of doing that, because in the games (that count), it’s all serious and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get the two points.”

Williamson conducted his postgame interviews with Duke’s weight-room title belt — given to the hardest worker during offseason conditioning — draped over his shoulder. He also had five construction helmets arrayed on the floor around him, which were awarded for being tops on the team in various combine tests, including vertical leap, standing jump and bench press.

“The main thing for me is that he never takes a play off,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s in unbelievable shape. His lateral quickness is off the charts along with his jumping. He’s really a guard. He can handle the ball and he’s one of our best passers. He can drive the basketball. He gets the ball real low and when he’s up in the air, he can maneuver. He’s got great body control, and he finishes. He’s a very special player.”

That’s assuming that Williamson is able to take the floor for the Blue Devils once the season starts.

Last week, during one of the trials spurred by the FBI’s investigation into college basketball, Williamson was connected to shoe-company corruption. According to wiretapped conversations, his father allegedly demanded money, housing and a job from the University of Kansas. (The taped conversation was between Kansas coaches and shoe company employees, not Williamson’s father.)

Duke immediately released a statement expressing confidence that Williamson would remain eligible.

When asked about it, Krzyzewski said, “We’re not (concerned). We’ve done exhaustive things as far as with the NCAA in the summer. They have an eligibility center now. It’s an exhaustive process where these kids and their parents go through everything. We feel very comfortable with not only him but all our freshmen.”

For his part, Williamson didn’t seem worried.

“Honestly, I didn’t pay any attention to it,” he said. “I was just happy it was Countdown week. I’m very excited for it, since I came for my visit last year. … I’m just a college kid out here having fun with my classmates. You only get one chance at the college experience, so I’m trying to enjoy it while I have it.”

The fun on the court will be watching him break the mold for basketball stars.

“You can’t say he’s like somebody,” Krzyzewski said, “because he’s not like anybody. He’s like Zion, and he’s got to figure out who’s Zion going to be, and he’s in the process of doing that.”