CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Duke freshman star Zion Williamson is back for the fifth-ranked Blue Devils' quarterfinal matchup with Syracuse in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, throwing down a soaring dunk in transition barely two minutes into his return.
Williamson got the start after missing nearly six full games with a knee sprain suffered in the opening minute of last month's loss to rival North Carolina, a moment that included his left foot tearing through his shoe as he fell to the court. Ranked No. 1 at the time, the Blue Devils had been 3-3 with the 6-foot-7, 285-pound Williamson out.
Williamson was wearing the Nike PG 2.5, Oklahoma City Thunder star Paul George's signature shoe, when he was hurt and had worn them frequently without an issue before the incident that even led to a day-after hit for Nike's stock price.
This time, Williamson returned sporting a specially modified pair of Nike Kyrie 4 shoes from Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving — with the two sets of shoes typically in the $110 to $120 retail range on Nike's online store.
Duke team spokesman Mike DeGeorge described it as a standard practice for Nike with its partner schools, saying: "In special circumstances, Nike always works with schools to make sure the shoe is right." Nike spokesman Mitch Germann said the company works with its programs "to ensure we are providing the best product for their athletes."
"We're thrilled to see Zion returning to the court," Germann said in the statement. "After working closely with the Duke Basketball team to examine the issue, we are confident this was an isolated incident."
Irving, a former one-and-done star at Duke, was told of Williamson's fast start after the Celtics' win against Sacramento Thursday night.
"I don't think the shoes really make a difference, but I'm happy that he's in a Nike brand," Irving said. "He's a special player. I'm just happy that he has some shoes that won't deteriorate over time. He was really comfortable in the PGs. He probably wore them a little too many times or whatever the case may be. I don't know the exact thing. But I'm just happy he's out there helping them, playing."
Williamson's mere appearance in Charlotte was enough to create a stir when he took the court for pregame warmups, with a line of reporters taking photos or shooting video under the basket of his shots and mid-speed dunks. He drew a loud cheer when he was introduced during pregame warmups, then another as he scored in the post over 7-2 defender Paschal Chukwu 90 seconds into the game.
About 30 seconds later, Williamson stole a pass and raced down for his latest high-flying highlight that sent both the Duke and non-Duke fans alike into a full roar about 30 seconds later. And by the midway point of the first half, he had thrown down two more dunks — one off an alley-oop pass from RJ Barrett — and had single-handedly outscored Syracuse 15-11.
Williamson, The Associated Press player and newcomer of the year for the ACC, even hit a 3-pointer despite shooting just 29 percent from behind the arc this year. He came in averaging 21.6 points and 8.8 rebounds.
AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower in Boston contributed to this report.
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