The hype was supposed to be too high, even unfair. Zion Williamson missed 44 games. He wasn’t in top basketball condition. It was going to take him time to find his way, to adjust to the best league in the world.
Even LeBron James had a full training camp to prepare and didn’t have to recover from arthroscopic right-knee surgery before playing his first NBA game.
As it turns out, the insanely high bar wasn’t set high enough. Williamson, the one-and-done former Duke star, has shattered expectations in his first 10 games — performing at a level few could expect coming off knee surgery, doing what only Michael Jordan has done, scoring at least 20 points in eight of his first 10 games.
And here’s the scary part: The 6-foot-6, 284-pound athletic freak is only getting better. Just look at how he overwhelmed the Thunder and stud big man Steven Adams in the paint on his way to a career-best 32-point performance — his sixth straight 20-point game — in a loss Thursday.
“I’m impressed with where he is, and I can’t wait to see what the next step is, because I know it’s going to be nothing but greatness,” Turner Sports NBA analyst Brendan Haywood said in a phone interview. “When he’s at his best, he’s somebody who can dominate this league.”
If that’s sounds like a bit much for a player who hasn’t even appeared in an eighth of an NBA season, consider these numbers: Through 10 games, no player has scored more points in the paint over the past two decades than Williamson. He is the third No. 1-overall pick since 1992 (after Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson) to score 200 points through 10 games. Williamson became the first rookie since 1966 to record 30 points, five rebounds and five assists while playing fewer than 30 minutes. The 19-year-old phenom also became the first rookie in 35 years, since Jordan, to score at least 30 points in back-to-back games.
“I expected to make an impact, but I didn’t expect to do nothing like this,” Williamson told reporters recently. “I was kind of looking to come in and just kind of fit in and just not try to mess up.”
Forget screwing up. Williamson, averaging 22.1 points on 57.6 percent shooting and 7.5 rebounds, is leading the Pelicans’ playoff push. They have won six of the 10 games in which he has appeared, impressive considering six of the teams they have faced would be in the postseason if the season ended now.
What has further impressed everyone is how he has handled the hype attached to his name. Haywood loves that he isn’t trying to prove people wrong by showing he can shoot from deep, but doing what he does best, which is be a menace in the paint. He’ll post up smaller players and go by bigger ones. He dazzled everyone by hitting four 3-pointers in his debut, but he has attempted just six since. He has taken to heart the line rookies often hear, “Get in where you fit in,” as ESPN analyst Jay Williams has said.
“He doesn’t make the game hard,” Haywood said.
This is what one coach, a player and an analyst had to say: “A talent like that — he’s a great guy on top of it all — the whole world needs to see him,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
“I don’t really think he’s comparable to anyone that I have seen,” Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony said.
“He’s Zion — he’s one of one,” Williams said. “There’s no comparison for somebody who is 6-6 ¹/₂, who weighs 285 pounds and has the agility and dexterity he has.”
Pelicans play-by-play announcer Joel Meyers called games for the 2003-04 Lakers — a team that included Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant, O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Their road games were events. Fans would make a beeline to their warmups just to catch a glimpse of greatness. He has seen that with Williamson.
“There’s an atmosphere similar to that,” Meyers said. “As soon as the doors open, everyone is flocking down to the floor. They gravitate towards him.”
At home, there is an electricity Meyers hasn’t seen before with the Pelicans, and he has been on their games for eight years. Even the Anthony Davis-led team that swept the Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2018 playoffs couldn’t compare. The building has become incredibly loud.
Though the Pelicans are just 3-4 with Williamson in the lineup at home, three of those defeats came to the Nuggets, Bucks and Thunder. It traces all the way back to draft night, when an estimated 20,000 fans lined up in a downtown promenade in anticipation of the selection. Everyone is excited about the team in New Orleans.
“It’s changed everything dramatically,” Meyers said.
And Williamson is only getting started. His best, it appears, has only begun.
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