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After the ‘best year of his life’ at Duke, Zion Williamson ready to be NBA’s No. 1 pick

Zion Williamson’s press conference on the day before the NBA draft in New York Wednesday went about like many of his gatherings with the media during his time at Duke.

A horde of people elbowed each other as they were asking Williamson questions or trying get a photo of him. The 6-7, 285-pound forward talked mostly basketball but didn’t hesitate to veer into other topics (like New Orleans food) and he flashed his electric smile often.

Williamson is expected to be selected No. 1 overall by the New Orleans Pelicans in Thursday night’s draft.

Here are some highlights from the former Duke all-American’s press conference:

On his time at Duke

Williamson won ACC and national player of the year honors while averaging 22.6 points per game in his one year at Duke. He announced April 15 he was giving up his college eligibility but was the last of Duke’s three freshmen to do so (behind RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish).

Here’s why:

“It was the best year of my life,” Williamson said.

Asked what he learned during his one season, Williamson said coach Mike Krzyzewski gave him simple advice he’ll carry into his professional career.

“Just be me,” Williamson said. “Coach K, I don’t know how he does it. He has a way with words and makes you feel very confident in yourself. In tough games, when we are looking at him like, all right coach what do we do, he’ll just keep it as simple as possible and say just be yourself and we’ll be fine.”

Forwards Barrett, who’s 6-7 and 202 pounds, and Reddish, who’s 6-8 and 218-pounds, are both projected to be drafted among the top 10 picks as well. Together they helped Duke go 32-6 and win the ACC championship before losing 68-67 to Michigan State a game shy of the Final Four.

Williamson had plenty of good things to say about Reddish and Barrett. But he said the things he learned from walk-ons Brennan Besser, who was a senior last season, and Mike Buckmire, who will be a junior next season, are even more important.

“I took a lot from everyone,” Williamson said, “but somebody that I took a lot from would be two people, Brennan Besser and Mike Buckmire. Brennan Besser, for somebody who knew he wasn’t going to play, I’ve never see someone with so much energy. Before we would go on to the court, Brennan is the most hyped person in the locker room. And then with Buck, he is just wise beyond his years. He’ll probably be giving me a pep talk like, just go out there and be yourself and get this W and win. So those two taught me a lot.”

On going to New Orleans

After the Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery, Williamson and his family visited New Orleans and had a meal at Commander’s Palace, one of the top eateries in a city known for great restaurants.

Erroneous reports surfaced that Williamson ate chicken tenders. But that’s not true, he said.

“We went to this food place, I think it was called Commanders,” Williamson said. “I’ve been seeing some people saying that I got chicken tenders. No, that was my five-year old brother that did that. I got fried shrimp and mashed potatoes.”

He added that the city was “very welcoming” to him, with people recognizing him on the street and high-fiving him.

On being the No. 1 pick

If he goes No. 1 Thursday night, Williamson will be the first Duke player as the top pick in the draft since Kyrie Irving in 2011. Duke’s had two others -- Elton Brand in 1999 and Art Heyman in 1963.

“It would be a huge honor,” Williamson said. “Knowing that a team would like to take me number one, you can’t dream this any better than that. Every kid dreams about being the number one pick. And if I have the honor of being selected one, it would be a huge honor, something I can’t really even put into words. I think my expression and body language will tell it all tomorrow night if I get drafted one.”

His excitement level in anticipation is already off the charts. He was asked to place it on a scale of 1-10.

“100,” he said. “I mean, we dream about this day for so long and you don’t know if it is going to come true. I was talking to my agent’s assistant about this and he said, people say you’re lucky, but you made yourself lucky. The hard work, the sacrifice we made to be here, it gave us even just the opportunity to be here, let alone being taken number one.”

His post-draft celebration plans, though, sound like they are in line with his small-town upbringing in South Carolina.

“I’m a simple guy,” Williamson said. “I’ll probably go get some dinner with my family and then call it a night. I’m a really simple guy.”

2019 NBA draft

When: 7 p.m., Thursday

Where: Barclays Center, New York

TV: ESPN

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.
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