NEW YORK -- The phenomenon that is Zion Williamson took over Madison Square Garden on Thursday night -- and he did not disappoint.
With a slew of NBA personnel on hand, including Knicks President Steve Mills and assistant GM Allan Houston, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound Duke freshman wowed the sellout crowd with a handful of dunks and blocks before fouling out with 17 points and 13 rebounds in No. 2 Duke's 69-58 win over previously unbeaten Texas Tech.
Jimmy Butler, Trae Young and Knicks Kevin Knox and Emmanuel Mudiay sat courtside for the "Zion King's" electric Garden debut. Williamson was introduced last among the Duke players and received a huge ovation.
"Oh, it's crazy, I can't describe it," Williamson, the 18-year-old freshman from South Carolina, said as he sat at Knox's locker in the Knicks locker room after the game. "The environment, the fans from both teams were great and it was just a great basketball game."
Zion Mania hitting a fever pitch tonight as he makes his MSG debut- Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) December 20, 2018
-Garden is sold out
-About 90 media credentials issued
-NBA scouts on hand
-Oh, and Texas Tech is here too. pic.twitter.com/oYGkyejiSW
Mills flashed a big smile as he walked away from the court, and the Knicks fans can only dream of landing Williamson in June's NBA Draft. Maybe a frozen envelope would be in order.
"If they draft me, I would love to play for the Knicks," Williamson said. "I don't really care where I go, just the experience of being in the NBA. Whoever wants me and whoever sees the most in me, that's where I want to be."
Williamson didn't waste time exciting the crowd. When the game began, he elevated as if on a pogo stick for a block on the first Texas Tech possession. He scored Duke's first basket on a driving layup. And he notched his first Garden dunk at the 16:38 mark. He ultimately fouled out on a highly questionable charge call with 3:51 remaining.
ZION THROWS IT DOWN AT MSG! pic.twitter.com/4FfPVCzAjR- ESPN (@espn) December 21, 2018
"Coaching him is all exciting," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Besides that, he's a great kid. He's a winner."
Because of his box-office appeal, some have speculated that Williamson could earn $1 billion over the course of his career, as I wrote for Forbes SportsMoney.
Williamson said his experience playing at Duke and having such a huge social media following (2.1 million on Instagram) would prepare him for playing in a place like New York.
"Oh definitely," he said. "Growing up, my mom and my stepdad always taught me, if you really want to do this and not just basketball, you really gotta be able to handle the mental aspect of this. Sometimes it's going to be good, it's going to be bad sometimes. But the social media following and coming to Duke, it's just like a do-over. It's great for me."
For the record, Duke now has as many December wins at the Garden as do the Knicks (1).
The Knicks (9-24) currently own the fifth-worst record in the NBA and have a 42 percent chance at a top-4 pick in the NBA Draft, and a 10.5 percent chance at the No. 1 overall pick, per Tankathon.com.
Williamson said he hears most on social media from fans of the Hawks, Hornets, Bulls, Knicks and Nets, but didn't hear any Knicks fans at the Garden.
Some segment of Knicks fans believe the team should go full-tilt tank in an effort to land Williamson or teammate R.J. Barrett (16 points), the projected top-2 picks per ESPN and most mock drafts.
But although they are fielding a very young team featuring rookies Knox, Allonzo Trier and Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks are not fully committed to "Stop Tryin' for Zion" or to "Give It All Away for R.J."
"Tank?" Knicks coach David Fizdale said before the season began. "We will not ever tank."
That, of course, was before Zion truly established himself as Zion, an otherworldly force who entered the game averaging 20.1 points and 9.1 rebounds while making the nightly rounds on SportsCenter's Top 10.
For his part, Williamson sees the tanking slogans, and he understands it.
"I mean, it's love, don't get me wrong," he said. "But at the same time, they're opinions, I do care about. But I truly care about the scouts, the managers, the coaches opinions from those teams."
Some have tried comparing Williamson to Charles Barkley, Rodney Rogers and even LeBron James.
"He's as strong as Shawn Kemp with the athleticism of David Thompson," Michael Wilbon said Wednesday on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption."
While these comparisons are fun, none is wholly accurate.
Williamson said he grew up a Michael Jordan fan, but there are no accurate NBA comparisons for him.
"I'm just trying to be the first Zion, really," he said.