On Sunday night the clock hit zeroes, Duke’s championship dream evaporated, and a few million more brackets were set ablaze.
Within moments of the buzzer sounding and as Michigan State celebrated wildly, Adam Silver emerged from the tunnel, strode onto the court, enveloped Zion Williamson in a big hug, grinned, and whispered, “You’re ours now.”
OK, the NBA commissioner didn’t do that of course, but he might as well have. Because in that moment, Williamson essentially became the property of the NBA universe and its global fanbase, a player to be cherished and lauded and scrutinized and debated.
Forget about the formalities, Williamson is now an NBA player, and one of the most famous ones on the planet. There is no drama, no maybes, no wait-and-see moments to be had over the next couple of months.
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There won’t be any draft night shocks. He will suit up for whichever team gets lucky in the lottery, and he will do so as the biggest no-brainer first pick since LeBron James leaped from high school, back when that was a thing.
Williamson comes in with a greater level of focus and intrigue than anyone since James, who arrived in the NBA boasting a Sports Illustrated cover while barely old enough to drive. Williamson drops in with 2.8 million Twitter followers. That’s a lot of people wondering how you’re going to fare.
There is still a process to go through, but it is just that — process. Williamson couldn’t just walk off the court at Capital One Arena and find a suitcase full of cash ready for him in the locker room, but he won’t have to wait long for it and he’s set for life already. He still loves his college teammates, but he isn’t part of their world anymore, not even the same world as Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett, who will join him on draft night and hear their names called shortly after his.
The Zion-sphere, as big and all-encompassing as it is, is carved to fit just one personality, and it is his alone. Williamson will get a monumental shoe deal. He’ll be referred to predominantly by his first name only, a marker of both extreme fame and — let’s be honest — having a slightly unique moniker. Leave off LeBron James or Serena Williams’ last names and everyone still knows who you are talking about. Tom Brady, for all his Super Bowl jewelry, not so much.
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Williamson will be courted by all and sundry, from agents to endorsers to talk show hosts. TMZ will try to chat to him at an airport somewhere. He’ll get name-dropped in lyrics by recording artists.
The fans’ thirst for information about him won’t be sated, anything from his love life to who he’s hanging out with will all be up for grabs. He’s a level-headed kid by all accounts, one who has been schooled well this past year by Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. He’ll take it in stride.
The only unknown is what will happen when he actually takes to the court, and if you don’t count Summer League we will have to wait until October to see that. Whatever level of greatness he attains will be determined by performances churned out night after night, year after year.
That’s the same for everyone, but what makes Williamson different is that he has become an NBA star before he even plays an NBA minute. He has a lot to live up to, but if he’s even half as good as the hype suggests, he has a lot to accomplish. The clock just started again.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ columnist Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno