This was supposed to be a column gauging expectations for Zion Williamson’s rookie season. Then he scored 77 points on 80% shooting over the course of three preseason games, leading the Pelicans to an undefeated mark in contests that are meaningless, yet somehow still relevant. In actuality, it’s still a column about expectations. They’re just maybe slightly higher than they already were, say, seven days ago.
Here are 10 rational thoughts about Zion Williamson before the hysteria overwhelms.
1. As someone who’s invested more time and thought into projecting Williamson’s NBA future than most people on this fair planet, let me just acknowledge that I, too, am blown away by what’s already happened. I got chills watching him render Rudy Gobert helpless on multiple occasions last week. It’s really hard not to be excited. Every game, it’s something different that makes you pause for a second. As friend of mine in the industry put it long ago, watching Williamson play basketball is like eating candy.
2. We have to remember that this is the preseason, but the biggest and most relevant takeaway from the small sample size is that Williamson’s generational physicality already plays up at 19 years old. It was one thing watching him do essentially whatever he wanted around the rim at Duke. It’s a whole different thing seeing his approach translate against NBA bodies. There’s not going to be much of an adjustment period for him at all when it comes to finishing at the basket. He’s too strong, too explosive, and has an unbelievable knack for using the glass, feeling out pockets of space around the basket, and converting. I personally have little doubt that those elements of his game are for real.
3. When projecting the merits of any prospect, I generally try to avoid the rationale that a player is going to be more effective with the benefit of NBA spacing. That’s because it’s almost universally true. I find more often than not, that argument gets made as a last-ditch justification for someone’s own optimism. Really, find any quality basketball player who’s worse when they have more space to operate and wider driving lanes. In Williamson’s case, that rule of thumb clearly applies in a different way—we aren’t talking about a slow-but-strong rookie with a less-advanced handle who’s going to have an easier time getting into the paint. This is a player who’s been almost specifically designed to abuse the dimensions of the NBA game.
4. On that note, the part of the equation that’s gotten glossed over the most is how many fouls Williamson is going to draw, and thus how many free throws he’s likely to shoot. He’s patient, likes to initiate contact, and at some point sooner than later, he’s probably going to start getting officiated like a star. He’s primarily a two-footed leaper, gathering off of both feet to better maintain his balance in mid-air, and he’s exhibited enough of a handle to get downhill in quick-catch situations and to beat most opponents to spots off the dribble. Once he gets in the air, you basically can’t knock him off his line, and he has more room than ever to gather his weight, aim himself at the rim, and go to work.
5. The beautiful thing about Williamson’s game has always been his maturity. He understands exactly what he’s capable of and rarely strays from that formula, which leads to shots that are almost exclusively team-friendly. It’s why his skill set is already translating so cleanly, and why he’s so easy to integrate into a team. Williamson is capable of dominating a game within its margins, and without ever having to hijack it. That’s a rare gift, and the Pelicans are playing a style that’s going to amplify the things he can do in transition. If he stays healthy, he’s going to produce, even if a vast majority of his shots are coming in the paint.
6. You’re going to hear a lot of people critique Williamson’s jump shot, because it’s the easiest thing to nitpick. His shot is going to be a work in progress, but it’s worth putting plainly that he’s not likely to be a Ben Simmons-esque non-shooter. People ignore that he shot a passable 33.8% on 71 three-point attempts at Duke. He’s comfortable enough catching and shooting when he’s open, it’s just that most of the time, he knows better. If there’s a driving lane, Williamson should be taking it. He’s a very underrated passer. Players can be efficient and analytics-friendly without attempting 200 threes per season, particularly if they’re making like 60% of two-pointers. The jumper is an area for growth, but that doesn’t make it an Achilles’ heel in the short or long term.
7. The biggest hole in Williamson’s game at the moment is actually his defensive awareness, something that was covered up at Duke, where he was often allowed to roam on the weak side and use his athleticism to cover ground and defend an area. There have been moments with the Pelicans where he’s gotten lost and moments where his explosiveness covers for those mistakes. Williamson’s feel is demonstrably strong enough offensively that you figure he’ll eventually catch up on the other end—intelligent players tend to find ways. But expect opponents to try and pick on him using screens on and off the ball until he exhibits a better feel for switching and communicating assignments. It’s not rocket science that his best role offensively has always been at the five, but until he becomes a more flexible defender, it’s hard to see the Pelicans being able to rely on those types of lineups for long stretches. The faster he can get up to speed, the more realistic the playoffs become for New Orleans.
8. It’s going to be hard to avoid the microscope with the way Williamson draws headlines, but there shouldn’t be too much pressure on the Pelicans in Year One of what’s been an impressive retooling, in the wake of Anthony Davis. All the talk about Jrue Holiday anchoring the team does hold weight, and a career year could be in store for him. New Orleans was already one of the league’s fastest-paced teams under Alvin Gentry, and there’s not much reason to pivot from that based on their personnel. It’s been great to see Williamson already identify his role in the offense and where his points will come from. Still, expect an egalitarian offensive approach from Alvin Gentry that should lead to big nights from a variety of players over the course of the season. The fact that approach can be so conducive to Williamson’s natural strengths leaves room for optimism.
9. For posterity’s sake, this is what I wrote one year ago before the start of college basketball season, when we ranked Williamson as the top prospect in the draft. It felt like a bold decision at the time, when the national focus heavily centered on R.J. Barrett. As it turns out, it mostly just stated the obvious.
Built like a tight end, brandishing unnatural agility and explosiveness, Williamson is a truly unique player and arguably boasts the greatest upside of any eligible prospect. Though his highlight dunks are internet legend, his perimeter skill set is far more expansive than he’s gotten credit for: Williamson is nearly impossible to defend in space and in transition, he’s an expert finisher and a terrific passer. He has the physical presence to draw fouls at an elite rate. He is not an outstanding jump shooter, but his release isn’t broken, and he may be too explosive for defenders to gain much by sagging off. Today’s NBA is dominated by unorthodox players who can take over on the ball and generate shots for themselves and others. To consider him the top prospect is to believe in his immense athletic gifts transcending the question of positionality. What’s for certain is that Williamson is something we’ve never seen before, and while some teams may be afraid to take the chance, others will see enormous potential.
10. No matter what Williamson’s rookie season ends up being—maybe all rationale is out the window a month from now, maybe there are growing pains we can’t foresee—we should probably just try and enjoy it. Let’s make sure and remember this moment, before the television punditry picks him apart for god-knows-what. Few rookies in the history of the sport have been must-see television from the start. Zion is one of them.