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USA TODAY

CHARLOTTE – They stood side by side on the steps that surrounded the tunnel of the players at the Spectrum Center, some of which crowded by a viewing angle, others holding cell phones over their heads.

It is not common for a conference tournament to produce a "remember where you have been" moment, especially before the game actually starts. But there was a different energy Thursday night here at the ACC tournament, a din that followed Zion Williamson from his first appearance on the floor to the first dazzling dunk, over the edge, who announced his healthy return to his count final of 29 points and 14 rebounds in the victory of Duke for 84-72 on Syracuse.

"Bro, you didn't get lost," Duke Guard RJ Barrett told a Williamson laughing as he picked up a box score at the post-match press conference, causing Williamson to cover his face with the copy in front to him.

In fact, he didn't.

After losing six games for a three-week period that triggered a National debate on the possibility that Williamson was playing again this season, the most exciting college basketball player of the decade has not just returned from a knee injury on Thursday as many humans would return from a knee injury.

Like everything else with Williamson from the start of his university career, he was a supersized, otherworldly, 13-for-13 comeback designed to bring down his jaws and give NBA executives some dry shots on the 14th lottery May that promises to change the direction of a franchise and leave many others to curse their luck.

I never had any pressure to turn back. I was ready, "Williamson said, adding that he never thought of closing for the season." I felt ready a few days ago and it was good to come back. "

Williamson's performance after a 22-day layoff not only reminded everyone why Duke climbed to No. 1 in February and resembled his favorite national league when completely healthy, accentuating the gap between Williamson and every other perspective in basketball del college

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Why with Williamson, it's not just the unique physique, the strength with which he can end up around the hem or his occasional flash of skill on the perimeter. Williamson simply loves to play – a simple but essential element of the entire package that leads to a basketball team, and one that was lost on the Twitter crowd that shouted at him to turn it off after his left wing exploded of new in February. 20.

"I wanted to be out there every game," Williamson said. "I see my brothers out there fighting and wanting to go to war with them.

" Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but I knew I would come back all the time. "

Of course, if he was going to come back, he would have been in a different pair of shoes than the Nike PG 2.5 that broke away from the seams, which was an interesting subplot alone.

Last Thursday, Duke released a picture of Williamson laced up with white Nike Kyrie 4s, but these weren't your typical out-of-town sneakers.

Duke Mike Krzyzewski's trainer said that the day after the North Carolina game, Nike sent " his best players "to understand what happened and then went to China to personally supervise the production of a stronger and more stable version. He also ensured that Williamson frequently alternates his shoes, since they suspect the wear of using the same pair of shoes in several of the games helped bring it down under Williamson's £ 285.

"They came back within a week with several alternatives to make sure it was done well, "said Krzyzewski.

"We have a very close relationship, we think it's the best shoe or we wouldn't be with

Said Williamson:" The shoes were incredible in this game. "

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Equipped with those stronger shoes, Williamson tripped, bounced and collapsed on the floor with abandon He threw the balls, made the bully to bounce, ha called for the lob and offered his companions a smile after every positive play.

Of course, this is what makes this thing so interesting and what distinguishes it as a potential generational talent. draft NBA, Williamson did not need to return at all. Yet when he did, he played as if his future earnings depended on it.

"I have been in this game for over 50 years and I have saw many great players, "said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. "I'm not saying it's better than those guys, but it's a different player, can do things that nobody did in this game, there are no guys like him."

About the only thing Williamson didn't do was shoot good free throws (2-for-9). But when five dunks accumulate, cause five thefts and arrive within two rebounds of a double double in the first half, the show is more or less finished.

Even if you only needed to see his first viral moment to understand that Williamson was really back – a steal in the middle of the pitch, a throw from a pitch inside the free throw line and an assault on the hoop at just two minutes in – he went ahead and offered many others anyway. It is just what it is.

And while Thursday was impressive for Duke because he remembered that the average team that often looked like the last three weeks is no longer relevant to their NCAA tournament prospects, Friday's semifinal is significant indeed.

North Carolina beat the duke twice without Williamson, including last Saturday in Chapel Hill. If Duke turns the tables into a neutral field with his best player in good health, his argument for a number one seed will be rock solid.

"We're very excited to be a part of it because it's real now," Williamson said. "D & # 39; now it's winning or going home."

Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken .

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