Opinion: NBA rookie Zion Williamson is matching — perhaps surpassing — his massive hype

LOS ANGELES — Everything about Zion Williamson is eye-popping. His size, statistics, strength, dunks, quickness, agility, explosiveness, smile.

Biceps like Popeye. Power like Shaquille O’Neal. Athleticism like Russell Westbrook. Rookie stats like O’Neal, Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

Thirteen games into Williamson’s NBA career, he has equaled (perhaps surpassed) the considerable hype that accompanied him as the No. 1 pick by the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2019 draft.

Williamson averages 23.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists and shoots 57.3 percent from the field. His rebounding is a developing into a work of art, springing quickly and powerfully to snatch the basketball. He averages almost as many offensive rebounds as he does defensive.

He has scored at least 20 points in 11 games and posted 20 or more points in his past nine games, including 29 in his first games against James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.

“The experience has been great — to finally get out there and be with my teammates,” Williamson said, just trying to take it all in.

It’s possible Williamson isn’t receiving enough attention for his accomplishments. Maybe it’s because he didn’t play his first game of the season until Jan. 22 following his recovery from knee surgery in October. It’s possible his impressive start escaped greater interest because story lines have been established. By midseason, Memphis’ Ja Morant had emerged as the Rookie of the Year favorite.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson averages 23.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists and shoots 57.3 percent from the field. (Photo: Richard Mackson, USA TODAY Sports)

Any questions about his ability to become a star are disappearing by the game.

Check out these numbers for historical context. Williamson is:

  • The third player in the past 30 seasons with seven 20-point games in his first 10 games, joining Hill and O’Neal.
  • The third rookie in the past 30 seasons to score more than 200 points in his first 10 games, joining O’Neal and Iverson.
  • The first rookie since Michael Jordan to record eight 20-point games in his first 10 games.
  • The youngest player with at least seven consecutive 20-point games since Carmelo Anthony in 2004.
  • The fourth teen to score at least 30 points in back-to-back games along with James, Devin Booker and Luka Doncic. He is the only one to do it in his first 10 games.

Yes, Williamson is still a teen, and a young rookie at that. He doesn’t turn 20 years old until July 6.

“What’s been most impressive is the level of efficiency,” veteran Pelicans guard JJ Redick said. “A lot of times with really talented players that age you’re going to see flashes of brilliance and he’s brought a level of brilliance and intensity every night that’s he played so far. The consistency has just been remarkable."

Then, Redick offered this foreboding assessment: "He's just really tapping the surface if I’m being honest."

Williamson's performance is so strong that he has generated Rookie of the Year intrigue even though he missed half the season.

At the beginning of the season, Pelicans general manager David Griffin and Coach Alvin Gentry tried to slow the hype machine. They didn’t want or need Williamson to be Superman.

There's no avoiding his presence and impact. When Williamson is on the court, the Pelicans score 113.7 points and allow 101.9 points per 100 possessions — a stark difference to the 109.6 points scored and 112.9 points allowed per 100 possessions when Williamson is not on the floor.

In limited minutes since Williamson’s debut, the starting lineup of Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors and Williamson is scoring 113.2 points and allowing 94.3 points per 100 possessions.

"I'm just trying to get better at everything and just finding the flow with different rotations out on the court," Williamson said. "Sometimes, I’ll go on a run with a certain group, other times I’ll get out there and kind of struggle as a group. It's just adjusting to my teammates."

SportsPulse: Zion Williamson and Trae Young got the chance to meet Barack Obama at an NBA Cares event and both young stars were in awe after meeting the former president.


Combined with improved play just before Williamson returned and his debut, the 25-33 Pelicans are in position to compete for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They are 3½ games behind Memphis for the No. 8 seed, and if they pass Portland and Memphis, the Pelicans likely would face the Lakers in the first round, a tantalizing series for fans, the NBA and TV networks.

"He’s an easy guy," Gentry said. "I keep telling everyone that. He's all about the team. Those kinds of things are easy. He just wants to be part of the guys. He wants to do everything he can to help us win games. It’s never about him. He’d never want it to be about him.

“These things are tough, him having to stand here every day and you guys ask him all these question about him personally. That’s not really who he is. He wants to talk about our team and how we’re trying to get better and how we’re trying to make a playoff run. Those are the things that are important to him, not the individual accolades.”

Even though James made it clear he has not met Williamson and Williamson confirmed they haven’t had a conversation, James likes what he sees.

"He's playing exceptional basketball," James said. "Every game he’s going to get better and better, just having that experience. Today’s game is a perfect fit for his game. The high pace, the way they play it fits his game. The speed, running up and down and playing at that speed, they move the ball.

"They try to get it up the court and it reminds me of the Phoenix Suns back when Steve Nash was running it in that first eight seconds. So it works perfectly. And our game is so many possessions now and there’s so much space that it’s perfect for our game."

Williamson is far from a complete player, and he knows that. The Pelicans love his attitude. Williamson knows he’s still learning and that he doesn’t know everything. He listens, works hard and is not deterred. They rave about his basketball IQ.

"He’s going to develop into one of the elite players in the NBA," Redick said. "He can shoot it better. He can defend better. He can pass better.

"He can do it all better, but he’s doing it pretty darn well right now."

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