It seems like a no-brainer that 2019 consensus player of the year and eventual first-overall NBA draft pick Zion Williamson would leave college for the league, but the New Orleans Pelicans rookie suggested that there was much more to his decision than meets the eye.
In an interview with Pelicans teammate J.J. Redick for The Ringer, Williamson revealed that he was surprisingly close to returning to Durham, North Carolina, to join legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils for his sophomore season.
If left to his own devices, Williamson said he would have gone back to college.
“I wanted to go back,” Williamson said. “Nobody ever believes me — they think I'm just saying that, but no. I genuinely wanted to go back.”
Williamson — who averaged an unfathomable 22.6 point and 8.9 rebounds on 68% shooting from the field in his lone year at Duke — said he had gone so far as to tell his family that he would be returning to Cameron Indoor Stadium for another season. He later decided to leave for the draft at the very last minute “when you had to declare.”
“I felt like the NBA wasn't going anywhere,” Williamson said. “The money thing — that's money, I don't play [basketball] for money, I play because I genuinely love the game. I just loved my experience at Duke that much where I wanted to stay.”
Even though Williamson himself wanted to hang around Durham for a little while longer, many of the most important influences in his life had other ideas. The 6-foot-7, 285-pound high-flyer told Redick — a fellow former Blue Devil — that “it was one of those situations where Coach K isn't gonna let me come back because he wants me to do what's best for the family.”
“My teammates were saying, 'Man, that would be dope if you come back,'” Williamson said. “But at the same time, they were telling me I would be leaving too much.
“It was tough,” he added.
Ultimately, though, Williamson explained that his mother and stepfather helped sway him in the other direction.
“[My mom] said she's gonna support me whatever I do, so I was like 'alright, I'm going back!'” he said. “And then I think her and my stepdad talked about it and they were like 'you worked too hard to get to this moment, you'd feel bad if you left it.' So I said 'I did work for this since I was like four or five, so let me go.'”
Alongside a historic recruiting class that included acclaimed point guard Tre Jones fellow lottery picks RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, Williamson led Duke to an ACC tournament championship and an appearance in the Elite Eight before losing a one-point heartbreaker to the Michigan State Spartans.
This year, the Blue Devils are ranked second in the nation and have yet another serious player of the year contender in freshman center Vernon Carey. Had Williamson returned, Krzyzewski would have undoubtedly had the most talented team in the country on his hands, and Duke more than likely would have once again been the frontrunner to win the national championship.
But it appears Williamson puts even more of a premium on the lessons he garnered from the winningest coach in Division I history than he does on winning.
“I learned a lot from him in those few months,” Williamson said. “It's actually crazy to me.”
Check out a video of the interview below: