The shoe fits: Zion Williamson's Nike swap pays off in triumphant return

CHARLOTTE – Zion Williamson traded Paul George for Kyrie Irving in his return from injury on Thursday, and he considers it a significant upgrade.

In Williamson's return from a sprained right knee in the ACC tournament quarterfinals on Thursday night, Williamson reflected on the exploding Nike that led to a 22-day absence, which accounted for his missing nearly six full games away from the Duke lineup.

Williamson wore a modified version of Kyrie Irving's 4 model Nikes, opting for a higher-cut shoe after his Paul George-model Nikes blew out on Feb. 20 against North Carolina.

After Williamson shot 13-for-13 from the field, dunked five times and finished with 29 points in his return, it wasn't surprising he gave the sneakers rave reviews.

"The shoes were incredible in this game," he said after Duke's comfortable 84-72 victory over Syracuse.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski detailed the lengths Nike went to trying to make up for the sneaker that Zion's foot ripped through, which led to the sport's most dominant viral video this season. And a mountain of bad press for Nike.

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Zion Williamson suffers knee injury after shoe 'explodes'
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Zion Williamson suffers knee injury after shoe 'explodes'
Duke's Zion Williamson (1) falls to the court under North Carolina's Luke Maye (32), injuring himself and damaging his shoe during the opening moments of the game in the first half on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. (Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
Duke's Zion Williamson (1) falls to the floor with an injury while chasing the ball with North Carolina's Luke Maye (32) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Duke forward Zion Williamson holds his knee after injuring himself and damaging his shoe during the opening moments of the game in the first half on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 20: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after falling as his shoe breaks against Luke Maye #32 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 20, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 20: A detailed view of the shoe worn by Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils against the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 20, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 20: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils picks up his broken shoe in the first half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 20, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Duke's Zion Williamson sits on the floor following an injury during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina, in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. Duke might have to figure out what the Zion Show will look like without its namesake. All because of a freak injury to arguably the most exciting player in college basketball. As his Nike shoe blew out, Williamson sprained his right knee on the first possession of what became top-ranked Duke's 88-72 loss to No. 8 North Carolina. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
A trainer holds Duke's Zion Williamson's shoes after Williamson left the game due to an injury during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. Duke might have to figure out what the Zion Show will look like without its namesake. All because of a freak injury to arguably the most exciting player in college basketball. As his Nike shoe blew out, Williamson sprained his right knee on the first possession of what became top-ranked Duke's 88-72 loss to No. 8 North Carolina. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Krzyzewski said Nike sent "their top people" to Durham the next day to figure out what went wrong with the shoe. That Nike crew then went to China to explore making a more "supportive" shoe.

"They came back within a week with different alternatives to make sure that it was done right," Krzyzewski said. "So their immediate, great response was appreciated and it was something that we have grown to expect from our relationship with them."

Williamson expressed his appreciation for the shoe, which was white with blue swooshes and featured the Duke logo on the back. Zion felt the change in shoe, but couldn't quite articulate it.

"I couldn't really specifically tell you if I wanted to," he said. "I just know they're a little stronger than the regular Kyrie 4s, so I want to thank Nike for making these. They felt very comfortable."

Krzyzewski would be more likely to be seen wearing a Carolina-blue jumpsuit at an AAU event than saying anything negative about Nike. The company has been a constant in his career, both at Duke and with USA Basketball, and has paid him tens of millions of dollars. So the lengthy explanation of Nike's response was interesting in the logistics, but not particularly surprising.

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

Krzyzewski pointed out that Williamson will change out his sneakers more often. He said Zion was wearing them too many games, which led to wear and tear.

"I think that contributed to that blow out," Krzyzewski said.

Now that Zion is back on the court and obviously healthy, the biggest sneaker subplot will be who he signs with after the season. A source told Yahoo earlier this year that he'll easily make more than $5 million a season, an outlandish number for a rookie. There's no other prospect in the same timezone of Williamson's marketability, which means all the major shoe companies will be bidding for him.

"All they want to hear about is Zion," a shoe company executive told Yahoo earlier this year. "There's no silver. Zion is the gold."

After dominating in his new kicks on Thursday night, Zion's future got even shinier.

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