Sports

Zion Williamson Is Breathing Fire and Leveling Entire Cities

Low-angle shot of Zion Williamson with arms raised as he walks off the court, with fans in the stands in the background.
Zion Williamson heads off the court after a preseason game against the Utah Jazz at the Smoothie King Center on Friday.
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

There’s a federal law that says you can’t get too excited about a player’s performance during NBA preseason. If I were to call Chicago rookie Coby White “the answer to all the Bulls’ problems” after a few exhibition games, for instance, the feds would issue a warrant for my arrest. The criminal justice system is acutely unjust, but I think we can all agree that this specific ordinance is fair. As such, I am willing to risk any and all punitive measures to issue the following statement: Zion Williamson is good as hell, and he is going to devour professional basketball. See you at Alcatraz, baby!

Williamson won’t be taking anyone by surprise in the NBA. He was the best high school player in the country, then the best college player in the country. (I’m sensing a pattern!) The New Orleans Pelicans selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and it was the easiest decision a front office will ever have to make. He is the kind of superhuman athlete whose talent can be appreciated by people who have no interest in athletics or superhumanism. This is some breathless hype, sure, but Williamson has played so well in preseason that it’s hard not to get carried away. Let’s jump the gun and grant him mononymic stardom already: Zion is a big deal.

Zion is averaging 23.3 points in just 27.3 minutes per game. As FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring notes, only three players are scoring at a higher clip this preseason: Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and Stephen Curry. They are all former MVP winners now that the award will be handed to Zion in perpetuity for as long as he plays in the NBA.

This kind of dominance is exceedingly rare for rookies, even in exhibitions. The last first-year player to average more preseason points was David Robinson back in 1989 (24.9 ppg). But, as The Ringer’s Mike Lynch points out, Robinson shot 51.1 percent from the field. Zion, meanwhile, has made 71.4 percent of his attempts over four games and has been the NBA’s most efficient scorer during preseason. (His outstanding numbers will remain unchanged until further notice. The Pelicans are resting Zion for their final preseason game due to “right knee soreness.”)

To say Zion is an accurate shooter is a tad misleading. He doesn’t really “shoot,” per se; he mostly crams the ball in from point-blank range. He’s taken zero mid-range attempts in four games, and of his 34 made baskets, all but one (a 3-pointer) have come in the paint. Of those, 32 were converted in the restricted area. Defenders know where he likes to score—they just can’t stop him.

That dunk was with his off-hand, by the way. If you have any ideas on how to prevent that kind of thing from happening, please alert your local NBA team immediately. The regular season starts next week.

With so much of his production coming in the paint, it’s tempting to assume that Zion is just a burly bruiser beating up on the timid and the weak. But at 6-foot-7, he relies on quickness and smarts (as well as spring-loaded hops) to get opportunities. This is important, as burly bruisers don’t tend to last long in today’s NBA, where teams are equipped to take advantage of mismatches. Zion, meanwhile, is all mismatch all the time. He’s too strong for forwards and too fast for centers. He’d drive Goldilocks crazy. Watch how he barrels through Utah’s Joe Ingles (a small forward) and then quickly out-hops Rudy Gobert (a center) with his second jump.

Gobert is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year and the league’s premier rim protector. If anyone is going to prevent Zion from doing what he does best, it’s him. But in that same game, the Pelicans rookie scaled Mont Gobert with little fuss.

There’s a directness to Zion’s game, but he almost always plays under control. Defenders may crowd him, but he’s a good enough passer and ballhandler to keep them honest.

Here’s where I would usually point out his deficiencies or weaknesses, like how his 3-point stroke is unproven. That’s a worthwhile exercise, but I’d much rather just post a clip of him soaring for a 360-degree dunk and call it a day.

Ah, that’s the stuff.

The NBA has been defined this decade by sharpshooting and small ball, and teams have prioritized defending the perimeter to limit damage from long range. How, then, will the league defend an immovable, irresistible force down low? It’s like being so worried about identity theft that you change all your passwords, but then someone rips your front door off its hinges, grabs you by the ankles, flips you upside-down, and retrieves your Social Security card from your wallet. Before you know it, Zion has financed a jet ski using your name and is wrecking your credit score. What the hell are you going to do about it?