As a first-year guard with the Philadelphia 76ers a decade ago, Jrue Holiday was just hoping for playing time. But he can still remember the excitement he felt before his first games against luminaries such as the late Kobe Bryant as well as Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, whom Holiday found especially imposing in real life.
“That was kind of scary,” he said. “Not even going to lie.”
Holiday now plays for the New Orleans Pelicans, who employ a first-year forward named Zion Williamson. But while Williamson acknowledged that it was neat to go up against stars such as LeBron James for the first time – “a dude you’ve been watching on TV for a long time,” Williamson – the calculus is different for him. He is already one of the scary ones.
Thirteen games into his NBA career, Williamson has done his part to meet the outrageous expectations that have trailed him since the Pelicans made him the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft. His dunks register on seismographs. He has shown himself to be a surprisingly deft passer. And he has helped put the Pelicans in the playoff picture.
“A lot of times with really talented players at that age, you’re going to see flashes of brilliance,” the Pelicans’ J.J. Redick said. “But he’s brought a level of brilliance and intensity every night that he’s played so far. The consistency has been remarkable.”
After scoring 29 points in a 118-109 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Tuesday night, Williamson was about to start his postgame news conference when Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans’ all-star forward, strode past and shouted: “Zion, you’re the GOAT!” Williamson looked mortified.
“It’s never about him,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “He never wants it to be about him.”
But it is about him, whether he likes it or not. Since making his debut last month after missing the first half of the season with a knee injury, Williamson has averaged 23.3 points and 7.1 rebounds a game while shooting 57.3 per cent from the field. After Tuesday’s game, James said he considered Williamson’s game “a perfect fit” for the NBA: quick, explosive, multidimensional. At the same time, James made it curiously clear that he and Williamson do not know each other.
“I’ve never met him,” James said. “I’ve never met him before. Never. Never had a conversation with him. Never met him before.”
The game itself was entertaining – James scored a season-high 40 points as if to broadcast the fact that he is the present and not the past – and served as a preview of a potential first-round playoff series. Williamson’s arrival has coincided with a competitive playoff race in the Western Conference. Entering Wednesday, the Pelicans (25-33) were 3.5 games behind the injury-riddled Memphis Grizzlies (28-29) for the final playoff spot in the West.
Without Williamson through the first half of the season, the Pelicans were up and down. Ingram and Lonzo Ball, whom New Orleans acquired over the summer as a part of the deal that sent Anthony Davis to Los Angeles, showed promise, and Holiday offered his usual brand of leadership. But the Pelicans also drifted through a 13-game losing streak. Since Williamson made his debut Jan. 22, the Pelicans are 8-6. He seemed bothered by Tuesday’s result.
“Every win matters,” he said, “and every loss matters.”
Redick has been around a few players, he said, who are deceptively productive – guys who might appear to be having quiet nights then clutter the box score with a triple-double. Williamson, for all his rim-level pyrotechnics, is that type of player. Consider that he is attempting only 15.3 field goals a game. His efficiency has stood out to teammates.
“He’s going to develop into one of the elite players in the NBA,” said Redick, who went on to cite areas where Williamson has room for improvement. “You can go down the list: He can shoot it better, he can defend better, he can pass better, he can do a lot of it better. But he’s doing it all pretty darn well right now.”
For his part, Williamson said he was “trying to get better at everything.” He was not particularly expansive after the game.
On facing James for the first time: “It was a great experience. He’s an incredible player, and his résumé speaks for itself.”
On holding himself to a high standard: “I hate when I make mistakes.”
On whether the atmosphere at NBA games is different from what he experienced as a college player at Duke: “I feel like it’s pretty similar. The only difference is there’s no student section.”
Williamson has been revealing his charisma on the court. When the Pelicans visited Staples Center to play the Lakers on Jan. 3, he was still rehabilitating from knee surgery. But he worked out before the game, and his mere presence had a magnetic effect on dozens of early-arriving Lakers fans who crowded the court. They even cheered his dunks.
The spotlight on Williamson has only intensified in recent weeks.
“It’s absolutely crazy, really, where every hotel, every restaurant – everything that we do – there are just a ton of people there that want to see him,” Gentry said. “And I think he tries to accommodate as much as he possibly can. But obviously, it’s impossible to stop and sign every autograph and everything like that. But he tries to do the best he can.”
The great concern, of course, is his health. Each game doubles as a physiological litmus test: Did Williamson avoid injury? Because no one this big should be this dynamic. At 6 feet 6 inches and 284 pounds, he seems to defy logic, gravity and biomechanics, and the Pelicans’ medical staff has worked with him on landing with less force. Every time he emerges from another game with all of his limbs intact, it builds confidence – among the viewing public, at least – that his style of play may just be sustainable.
“We’re still in a position of thinking long term with him,” said Gentry, who has limited Williamson’s playing time to 28.4 minutes a game. “We want to be able to have him for 15 years.”
One month into his career, Williamson is making an impression. The Pelicans want it to last.