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NCAA Tournament 2019: Zion Williamson’s back at full health, and seemingly better than ever for Duke

When Zion Williamson, Duke’s freshman locomotive powering the Blue Devils’ NCAA Tournament run, cut left towards the basket and fell to the ground injured on Feb. 20 against rival North Carolina, a flurry of questions arose.

Could Duke win at a high level without him? Will he recover in time for March Madness? Should he shut it down, avoid risking further injury and preparing for this summer’s NBA Draft? If he is able to return, will he be able to have the same impact as before his injury?

It all seems so silly now. Really. Endless debates about whether Williamson should or shouldn’t shut it down, whether he could or couldn’t get back to full string, whether he did or didn’t debate declaring for the NBA before the season was over. He was always going to come back.

“Those six games I sat out, to see my brothers battling, I made a commitment to them,” Williamson said at the ACC Tournament, where Duke rolled past UNC in the title game. “I’d be a bad person if I went back on that commitment.”

Williamson missed just over three weeks recovering from the injury, longer than expected for what was diagnosed as a mild Grade 1 right knee sprain. But the superstar hasn’t missed a beat. In fact, the tune of his game has sped up and played out more gracefully than ever. At 6-foot-7, 285 pounds, he’s more explosive than ever, more impactful than before and more efficient. It’s jarring to watch. Everything he does, from the dunks to the leaps and blocks, appears supernatural, popping off your television screen like a 3-D movie.

Williamson’s been better in virtually every facet in the five games he’s played since returning on March 14, a brilliant feat considering he was off his feet for as long as he was. Since then, he’s scoring more points, shooting more 3-pointers, and doing it all more efficiently. His blocks, steals, rebounds and assists numbers are down a smidge overall, but he’s making up for it statistically with his offensive firepower, and he’s developed in that department in a variety of ways.

Most notably, Williamson’s been … dare I say it … efficient from the 3-point line — a range he struggled from this season. After shooting a dreadful 29.2 percent in his first 26 games on a whopping 48-shot sample size prior to his injury, he’s shooting 46.7 percent on 15 attempts in the last five games. 

The sample size is small, sure, but for a Duke team whose fatal flaw going into the postseason was 3-point shooting, Williamson’s efficiency from distance has been a revelation. His accuracy from the 3-point line since his return is better than RJ Barrett (29.6 percent on 8 of 27), Cameron Reddish (34.8 percent on 8 of 23) and Tre Jones (16 percent on 4 of 25).

Here’s a look at the raw numbers pre- and post-injury for Williamson.

Zion Williamson Pre-injury (26 games) Post-injury (5 games)

Points

21.6

27.6

Rebounds

8.81

8.8

Assists

2.19

1.6

Blocks

1.85

1.0

Steals

2.19

1.8

FG percentage

68.1

71.4

3-point percentage

29.2

46.7

What’s more, Williamson’s workload has increased. Despite the popular belief that Duke would slowly ramp up his usage and work him back into game shape, he’s shouldering a significantly larger offensive workload. It has manifested by reducing Barrett’s usage, too. (Note: Barrett’s statistics below does not include games where Williamson did not play during his recovery.) [TABLE?]

RJ Barrett Pre-Zion Injury (26 games Post-Zion injury (5 games)
Shots

18.62

16.2

Points

23.08

19.4

If it’s one thing statisticians and analysts will warn of, it’s trusting small sample sizes. It’s unlikely Williamson’s surge from the 3-point range is sustainable. He will likely regress to the mean. But even if the numbers stay in the ballpark of where he’s been at since he returned, Duke’s fatal flaw — its 3-point accuracy — could ironically be covered up by Williamson in a year in which it was one of his major (and only) weaknesses. 

Duke isn’t going to run Williamson off-ball screens like he’s JJ Redick, mind you. His game, his impact and how he scores is reliant upon him catching entry passes and scoring, or taking the ball and driving full-steam ahead like he did in crunch time against UCF in the second round. His threat to knock down 3-pointers at an improved rate, however, will only force defenders to respect him more on the perimeter than they already do.

It’s possible the most unguardable athlete in college basketball is even more unguardable than ever. 

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