Make no mistake, fans living in big markets were right to lash out in jealous rage when their team of choice failed to get the inside track for Duke’s most coveted Blue Devil. College basketball’s latest sensation is so unique, so special — and to boot he appears to possess a down-to-earth soul — I’ll honestly be a little surprised if he doesn’t wind up New Orleans greatest professional athlete when all is said and done.
Maybe even the city’s favorite.
That’s high praise for sure, and to confirm, I, just like everyone living along the Gulf Coast region, knows damn well who Drew Brees is, what he’s accomplished and how much he means to the region.
Before attending Duke, Zion’s impressive physical attributes and list of exploits were well known. His then-272 pound frame ripped through the high school competition. Over the course of four years at Spartanburg Day High School in South Carolina, he averaged an insane line of 32.0 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.9 blocks per game. All of his memorable moments were recorded for our viewing pleasure, but here’s a fun snippet.
Zion was an absolute highlight factory every time he stepped out onto the court; thus, there’s little wonder as to how a kid in high school acquired a million followers on Instagram. Or why onlookers immediately felt the need to invoke NBA greats. Even Penny Hardaway chose to compare him to Charles Barkley.
Despite all of the hype, however, Zion still had question marks.
Can Williamson make a jump shot? How’s his off-hand? Does he make his teammates better? And most importantly: Does the modern NBA have room for a player with the height of a shooting guard, the heft of a center, and a jump shot that remains a question mark?
You’ve already read that he dominated the high school scene. Well, he also stood out among the best of the best in AAU battles. Most recently, he left a magnificent stamp on his short stay at Duke, blocking, posterizing, turning college games into his own personal showcase.
In 33 games, Zion compiled averages of 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks. The advanced numbers showed even greater reasons for joy: a 40.8 PER, a 133.3 Offensive Rating, an 86.8 Defensive Rating, and a 71.1% True Shooting Percentage.
Since he proved to be an incredible two-way player, many proclaimed Zion’s campaign as one of the best college seasons in decades. Blake Griffin, an oft-comparison, says, “He’s gonna be really, really good.”
At first glance, Zion appears better suited to play football in the NFL. Sean Payton wasn’t crazy for dreaming about the physical specimen putting on a Saints uniform. Zion stands 6’7’’ and weighs 285 pounds — that’s a beast of a man, but boy oh boy can he do so many different and wonderful things on a basketball floor.
He’s stronger, faster and processes information quicker than everyone else. When he’s taking flight to the rim, contact doesn’t slow him down. He makes catching a ball in the air and then shooting it all in one motion look too easy. When there’s a loose ball, he’s the first to react and then make something happen before the opponent can recover. And one common theme that is unmistakable: he plays with a fire, passion and tenacity so rarely matched.
Before the start of his senior year in high school, Zion once explained to SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell from where he summons that spectacular drive.
“My mentality is killers kill,” Williamson said. “Yeah these kids are younger, but in two years hopefully I can be playing in the NBA. LeBron’s not gonna say, ‘oh you’re a rookie so I’m gonna take it easy.’ You always have to play hard.”
That willingness to run consistently through layers of brick walls has already served Zion well in late-game situations. He spearheaded one of the greatest comebacks in Duke history when Mike Krzyzewski’s team trailed the 16th-ranked Louisville Cardinals 59-36 with 9:13 remaining in the game, but they wound up winning by a final score of 71-69.
Duke’s comeback happened because Williamson was a wrecking ball on both ends of the court. He was a key part of Duke’s full-court trapping defense, forcing several turnovers in crunch-time to help the Blue Devils quickly turn defense into offense. There’s nothing you can do when Williamson gets the ball in the open court.
Williamson finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds, and three steals on 9-of-15 shooting from the floor. Zion was especially great at the foul line in crunch time, hitting 8-of-9 free throws on the night to help ice the victory.
During the latest edition of March Madness a few months ago, Zion was the main catalyst in propelling Duke to several close victories over UCF and Virginia Tech before bowing out to Michigan State in the Elite Eight by a single point. A disappointing finish for some, but not to minds associated with USA Basketball.
According to Marc Stein, “U.S.A. Basketball plans to gauge the interest of the Duke University sensation Zion Williamson in joining the Americans’ 12-man squad for the FIBA World Cup in China this summer, according to a person familiar with U.S.A. Basketball’s intentions.”
The last player to earn a roster spot on Team USA right out of college? You know him well out of Kentucky — Anthony Davis.
The New Orleans Pelicans franchise has lived in the shadow of its big brother, the New Orleans Saints, for years. Chris Paul was not able to flip that script. Neither could AD...up to this point. Zion Williamson might go down as the first, especially since he will have Gayle Benson, David Griffin, Aaron Nelson, Alvin Gentry and a slew of other great people fully committed in his corner.
If you ask ten different people to give you a good comparison to Zion, you’re likely to wind up with a variety of answers, but all of the names will certainly read like a who’s who list.
“He’s the first Zion. He’s such a unique player that we still really don’t know how some of these things we’ve seen will translate. We’ve not really seen someone like him before.”
This really is the best answer. There’s no need to pigeonhole one of the most explosive and dynamic players ever witnessed on the college scene. Just be sure to sit back and enjoy as often as possible because New Orleans has a good chance of creating splendid history.