BROOKLYN – Zion Williamson strutted onto the stage at the Barclays Center on Thursday night without a stain in sight. Not just on his cream white suit, but on his entire reputation from the global basketball community. Seldom has a player entered the NBA with an approval rating as high as Zion, with near-unanimous support earned through a season of electrifying dunks in Durham. Adam Silver flashed a grin as Williamson approached the lectern and held nothing back as he embraced the former Duke phenom. The league’s next star has officially arrived.
The shine on a top pick can fade quickly. Additional years in the lottery tests fans’ patience and poor shooting numbers are seized by critics. Ben Simmons’s jumper is mocked weekly, Andrew Wiggins is deemed a lost cause and Karl-Anthony Towns is labeled a turnstile. Losing breeds discontent, even for the most magnetic youngsters. But Williamson isn’t joining a franchise in turmoil; he and New Orleans are primed for playoff contention early and a potential run as Western Conference heavyweights after Williamson's first contract.
Zion could have joined New Orleans as the second fiddle to another No. 1 pick. David Griffin came to the Pelicans posturing he’d keep Anthony Davis in tow through opening night, and such a plan wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. The Pelicans held control over AD through the February’s trade deadline, and a run to the playoffs could serve as progress. Davis claimed his trade request came out of a desire to play for a winner (though skeptics would offer a hefty eye-roll in response). If Williamson lived up to expectations, a winner may have been molded on the fly.
But good on Griffin for not taking the bait. And even better on him for amassing such a haul in the Davis deal. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart are now in New Orleans, adding a pair of potential All-Stars, and at worst three contributors. The Pelicans also hold nearly every Lakers pick through LeBron James Jr.’s rookie year, and Jrue Holiday should remain steady into his 30s. The Pelicans will be a formidable defensive unit in year one of the Zion era, which will fuel a thrilling transition attack. Davis’s baggage is now 1,800 miles west and the Pelicans have the fresh start they so desperately needed. Zion and the kids are ready to take charge.
“Our team is young, they're close to my age which can help a lot,” Williamson said. “I’m excited for what we have here, I think we can build something.”
New Orleans’ youth parade doesn’t end with Williamson and the ex-Lakers. The Pelicans traded down from No. 4 on Thursday to acquire No. 8, No. 17 and No. 35, snagging Texas center Jaxson Hayes with their second lottery pick of the night. Hayes is not without flaws. He has little offensive polish and minimal stretch, though the Longhorns’ point guards didn’t do him any favors during his lone year in Austin. But Hayes does bring size and athleticism, and plenty of it. He's 6'11” with an 87.5-inch wingspan, standing as the fifth-longest player in the draft. Hayes tallied 2.2 blocks per game at the collegiate level. No Big 12 player had more.
Davis’s departure left a clear lack of rim protection and Williamson could have logged minutes at the five as a rookie, a package better deployed in spurts than over the course of 48 minutes. Hayes will help solve that issue, and allow Williamson to thrive as a passing lane destroyer and elite defensive centerfielder. Griffin’s roster construction should serve his star well, at least in year one.
“I feel like we’re a pairing that will work really well,” Hayes said on Thursday. “We’re both athletic guys, Zion is obviously a freak. But we’ll matchup and defend well and make it work from there.”
Let’s not crown the Pelicans just yet. New Orleans could very well repeat the Davis era with Williamson. Ball and Ingram have their clear flaws, and neither will do Zion any spacing favors. Jrue Holiday trends closer to good than great and Hayes’s offensive upside remains in question. Davis and LeBron could run off a near-decade of playoff appearances into James’s 40s, and what has been hailed as a historic haul could end up being a pu pu platter of lottery disappointments and late first-rounders.
Those concerns may be validated over the next decade. For now, the thrill of Zion is fresh, with the most exciting prospect since LeBRon four months away from his NBA debut. Williamson is New Orleans’ newest adopted son; Silver’s, too. His preseason dunks will consume the internet and his first regular-season game will be consumed unlike any player before. The Zion love fest is in full bloom, and the opportunity is there for a second straight year of Zion mania. Can Williamson possibly live up to the hype? Just ask his former teammate Cam Reddish.
“Zion is different, man. He’s ready for sure.”