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COLUMN: Zion Williamson lived up to the hype at Duke

Nassir Little Zion Williamson Duke ACC
Duke first-year forward Zion Williamson (1) attempts to block a layup by UNC first-year forward Nassir Little (5) during the semifinals of the ACC Tournament at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. on Friday, March 15, 2019. UNC fell to Duke 73-74.

The hype started long before Zion Williamson first stepped foot on the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium. It built throughout his time as a four-year varsity standout at Spartanburg Day School in South Carolina, turning him into the most lauded recruit since February 2002, when Sports Illustrated nicknamed then-high school junior LeBron James “The Chosen One."

I still remember rushing to check my iPhone for an update on Williamson’s college decision after leaving the movie theater on a Saturday night in January 2018 to see he had chosen Duke. 

More than 14 months since that day, it’s safe to say Williamson lived up to — or even exceeded — expectations. With a unique blend of superhuman-like size, strength and athleticism at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, we’ve never seen a player quite like him. 

Williamson averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists as a first-year to lead the Blue Devils to the Elite Eight. Though Duke — a favorite throughout the year to win the NCAA title — came up short in a regional final loss to Michigan State, Williamson was sensational throughout the year, and his fame and media attention continued to grow as a result. 

The phenom was named a first-team All-American, ACC Player of the Year, Associated Press Player of the Year and Naismith Trophy winner, among other honors. Williamson, the projected No.1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was undoubtedly the most exciting player in college basketball this season.

Still, whenever I’d scroll through Twitter during the season, I’d see tweets plastered with “eye roll” emojis, suggesting the amount of media coverage Williamson received was unnecessary or somehow unwarranted. (Admittedly, a large portion of my Twitter timeline is biased UNC students.)

To those who feel that way, I encourage you to think about this: What kind of media attention do you think LeBron James would garner if he was coming out of high school in 2019? 

During James’ senior year of high school, ESPN televised a game between his St. Vincent-St. Mary team and top-ranked Oak Hill Academy on Dec. 12, 2002. The broadcast marked ESPN’s first televised regular-season prep game since 1989. The network sent top-tier talent in to call the game: Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale, Dan Shulman and Bill Walton. The spectacle resulted in more than 1.5 million viewers — the third highest-rated basketball game in ESPN2 history at the time. 

This was four years before Twitter was founded and eight years before the existence of Instagram. Even Facebook hadn’t been created yet.

Today, people are more active than ever on social media, which allows anyone from entertainer Shiggy, who created a viral dance last summer to Drake’s “In My Feelings,” to Brother Nature, who records himself feeding and interacting with animals, to be celebrities. Trends on social media typically reflect how much a subject is talked about on television or in print. 

So, why wouldn’t the most dominant player the sport has seen in years, who has three million Instagram followers himself, be the biggest topic of discussion?

Yes, showing him on the bench during a game in play or finding a way to bring up his name when Duke isn’t even playing can, understandably, get to be a bit much. And then there was CBS’s “Zion Cam,” dedicated to recording Williamson’s every move through the Blue Devils’ NCAA Tournament run. 

But the reasoning behind what some may call “overexposure” is simple: people tune in. As ESPN’s Myron Medcalf pointed out in a tweet in February, the numbers prove it. 

Media outlets wouldn’t have plastered Williamson’s name on our television screens or social media feeds if internal data didn’t show a spike in viewership, page views or social media engagement. 

There are also external numbers that demonstrate an increased interest. A Forbes article showed that, according to data from Vivid Seats, fans paid more and traveled longer distances to see Duke play this season. The median distance travelled to watch the Blue Devils play on the road up to February was 95 miles, compared to 62 miles in the 2017-18 season — when the team had three first-round draft picks. 

Stephen Spiewak of Vivid Seats also noted in February that traffic on the Duke tickets page on was up 82 percent this season. 

We don’t know if Williamson will be the type of transcendent NBA talent that can take over the league the same way LeBron James did from day one. But we do know the impact he had on the college basketball world in just one year in Durham. 

The numbers and eyeball test both demonstrate it — the “Zion Effect” was as warranted as it was real. 


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