Bock’s Score: The Knicks Race For Zion

For many years, Duke University celebrated a 100 percent graduation rate for its basketball players. There was none of that one-and-done stuff going on at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Until there was.

The perfect graduation tradition ended in 1999 when Corey Maggette bailed out. A bench player at Duke, Maggette was a first round draft choice in the NBA. Duke’s undergraduate exodus was underway.

Until it wasn’t.

Departures slowed to a trickle until 2014, Since then, a dozen Blue Devils have left early, including last season’s entire starting lineup. That can be a devastating blow, unless you’re Duke.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski was not terribly disturbed. His incoming class included the usual array of blue chip, can’t miss players headed by Zion Williamson, a 6-foot-7, 285-pound package, who could play tight end just as comfortably as he does basketball.

Williamson arrived with a 45-inch vertical leap that is good for a couple of thunder dunks every game. Video of the young man’s game leaves NBA scouts salivating.  The same might be said for a couple of his teammates, RJ Barrett, who is Duke’s leading scorer, and 6-foot-8 Cam Reddish.  Both are projected first-round draft choices in the NBA. It is an embarrassment of riches for Coach K.

And so it was when Duke showed up at Madison Square Garden last week, Steve Mills, president of the New York Knicks, who call the world’s Most Famous Arena home, moseyed down to see what all the excitement is about Williamson and the others.

The Knicks, it should be noted, are in full rebuild mode and struggling through a difficult season with a mostly anonymous roster. With nine wins at Christmas Day, they are prime candidates for the NBA’s lottery draft.

There was a time when the team with the worst record got the No. 1 pick in the draft, an effort to offer improvement to an otherwise woebegone team. That system still exists in baseball and football. The NBA, however, refined its draft to even out the odds of getting No. 1. The league has gone through several permutations to level the playing field and the latest one provides each of the three teams with the worst records a 14 percent chance at No. 1.

On the day after Williamson lit up the Garden, the Knicks played the equally inept Atlanta Hawks, who were equipped with seven wins in what might be called the Zion Bowl. The Knicks conveniently lost the game. The cognoscenti in the Garden heaved a sigh of relief.

Flushed with that victory, the Hawks backed it up with a win against Washington, tying the Knicks with nine wins at Christmas. New York was, of course, thrilled by their success because in this derby it is not wins that help but losses.

The Chicago Bulls also had nine wins. Phoenix arrived at the holiday stuck on eight wins after losing a triple overtime game against Washington.

As the NBA heads for the new year, those four teams are dreaming of a special gift delivered from Duke, a one-and-done prize capable of reversing their fortunes.

Stay tuned, folks, and watch the losses add up.

About the Author

Hal Bock

Hal Bock is a contributor with NY Sports Day. He has covered sports for 40 years at The Associated Press including 30 World Series, 30 Super Bowls and 11 Olympics. He is the author of 14 books including most recently The Last Chicago Cubs Dynasty and Banned Baseball's Blacklist of All-Stars and Also-Rans. He has written scores of magazine articles and served as Journalist In Residence at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus where he also served on the selection committee for the George Polk Awards.

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