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Duke’s Zion Williamson was the talk of the town at NBA All-Star

It was a celebration of Jordan, Wade and Durant, yet the presumed No. 1 draft pick loomed large

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — There’s a television hovering over a Pop-a-Shot in the corner of Fahrenheit. The swanky restaurant and lounge on the 22nd floor of the Skye Condos has the best view of Charlotte, and on Saturday it was home to J. Cole’s invite-only day party. Artists like Wale, Fabolous and Dreamville’s own J.I.D and Omen blend in with anyone who could finesse the “VIP” badge. It’s where Cole’s posted up before making the five-minute trek to the Spectrum Center to assist fellow Fayetteville, North Carolina, native Dennis Smith Jr. in the dunk contest (and go for a dunk himself).

But on the TV above the Pop-a-Shot? The Duke and North Carolina State game.

“Ain’t that where that Zion boy plays,” says a young woman, only slightly paying attention to the Pop-a-Shot.

“Yeah,” replies the guy she’s shooting against. “That [dude is] nice as s—. He’ll be here next year.”

That Zion is Zion Williamson, the talk of the town during Charlotte’s All-Star Weekend. He’s the presumptive top pick in this year’s draft and a likely marquee part of next year’s Chicago All-Star Weekend festivities. Williamson is a transcendent talent. And his vibe is already seemingly everywhere.

Even as, over the weekend, Michael Jordan celebrated his 56th birthday. Even as Charlotte welcomed hometown superstar Stephen Curry with a weekend full of pageantry. Even as Dwyane Wade’s last All-Star Weekend as a player played itself out. Even as LeBron James as one-man economy was the personification of a headline. Yes, the most unavoidable storyline was Salisbury, North Carolina’s Zion Lateef Williamson, who was technically in class.

At almost any party in Charlotte you heard Zion’s name in a litany of conversations. Walk through any hotel lobby. Sit at any bar. Williamson was the Most Valuable Player of All-Star Weekend and he wasn’t within a 120-mile radius. “I never tooted my nose up or had anything to say about the comparison to me and Zion and Zion to me,” James said at media day on Saturday. “I think it’s great — I think it’s great for the game.”

“They’re talking about me?” Zion said with a bit of a smirk. “I’m in college.”

“He’s unreal. We were talking about him the other day in our team room,” said Curry. “He has a lot of hype around him and he’s unbelievably talented, but you can’t teach, like, his passion and the way that … he plays. He plays hard every possession, and that’s an underrated skill that kids can … emulate.”

With the game’s elite taking time out of their weekend to praise him, Williamson, who dropped 32 points on 12-of-16 shooting in a victory, played it coy. “They’re talking about me?” Zion said with a smirk. “I’m in college.”

But Williamson’s time playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium is but a pit stop before multimillion-dollar contracts roll in and shoe companies engage in an arms race to acquire his services. Williamson is one of four incredibly talented freshmen at Duke, along with Tre Jones, Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett, and Barrett could be the No. 2 pick behind Williamson in June.

The freshman collective makes Duke the most hyped and the most exciting team in the country. Jones is a floor general in every sense of the word. Reddish is about cold-blooded shooting from deep. Barrett has been for years one of the most prestigious young players in the country. But it’s Williamson who has been an internet legend for years now, thanks in part to his YouTube highlight ‘mixtapes’ featuring a plethora of violent dunks. There’s also the Drake co-sign, which gives him the sort of cultural relevance most can only dream of.

Williamson may be a bull in the NBA’s culture’s china shop, but he’s nimble and graceful enough to win the respect of someone like Misty Copeland. He’s also far more than his aerial mastery. The worst-kept secret in the league is that some of the NBA’s worst teams — New York, Cleveland, Chicago — thirst for Zion not only because of his talent but because he’s a marketing department’s dream. Right or wrong, warranted or not, overhyped or not hyped enough — these are the types of conversations overheard during All-Star Weekend.

When Oklahoma City’s Hamidou Diallo was interviewed after his dunk contest victory, he was asked about Williamson, as the two had squared off in a high school dunk contest.

Williamson won that 2016 matchup, and Diallo was asked about a potential rematch next year in Chicago. “Oh, that’s tough,” he said about the possibility. “Let’s do it.” Couple that rematch with a potential Zach LaVine-Aaron Gordon rematch (the best back-and-forth since the days of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins) and Williamson has passively helped create the most anticipated dunk contest in years. And it’s a contest that could absolutely use some spiciness and intrigue, even a year in advance.

Throughout uptown Charlotte, the jerseys of this year’s All-Stars populated the streets. A healthy dose of LeBron here. Equally healthy dose of Stephen Curry there. Giannis Antetokounmpo had his own makeshift street team too, with No. 34 Milwaukee Bucks jerseys all over the place. Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and others were constant jersey presences as well. But every now and then there was a Duke No. 1 jersey, definitely not enough to rival LeBron’s fans but enough to let people know that the league’s next star is in waiting.

There are 86 days until the NBA draft lottery to see who wins the right to (presumably) select Williamson with the first overall pick. There are 123 days until the actual draft, when Williamson walks across the stage to shake the hand of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. And there are another 364 days until next year’s All-Star Game — 363 until the dunk contest. A storm brews upon the horizon.

“That dunk contest was aiiight,” one fan said to his friend as they left the Spectrum Center on Saturday night. “Nothing to write home about. They need to fix this for real.”

“Yeah, they are,” the friend said. “Zion’ll be here next year. What more do you need?”

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.