For years, he wasn’t human, he was just Zion—a one-name prodigy, who possessed such a magnificent talent that no one could be blamed for re-thinking Newton’s laws of gravity.
In high school, we were mesmerized by his countless rim-shocking dunks that filled our Instagram feeds. We watched as Drake and Odell Beckham Jr. wore his Spartanburg Day jersey, and we observed how a singular talent made a small private school in South Carolina one of the hubs of the college basketball recruiting circuit.
He joined Duke, a school with a history of hosting college basketball’s most villainous figures, and made it not only must-watch, but nearly must-love. As he stat-stuffed box scores, we learned that at one time he was a “hell of a poet,” that he enjoyed studying the history of hip hop and that he undertook a semiotic analysis of Disney films. He became the third freshman to win the Naismith National Player of the Year award. Accolades, however, don’t describe the visceral excitement of watching him play.
“Zion Williamson seems like an outstanding young man as well as an outstanding basketball player,” President Obama tweeted about future No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson in February of last year.
But consider, the context of that tweet. The fact that it came on Feb. 20, 2019, the night that with America watching, Williamson blew through his left Nike shoe, spraining his right knee. “Wishing him a speedy recovery,” President Obama added in the same message.
It was on that night, that it became crystal clear that the man who might have been from Mount Zion, was more mortal than we once thought. Months later, as the calendar turns over, it’s even more apparent that behind the multiple facets of Zion Williamson the person, there are multiple facets of Zion Williamson the player. Among others, there is the high-flying, gravity-defying freak coupled with the player who is rehabbing an injury akin to any layperson—or at least normal NBA player.
At the start of NBA Summer League, the Pelicans prepared to face off against the New York Knicks. A sellout crowd entered the Thomas & Mach Center expecting to see one kind of earthquake, and ended up witnessing another. But besides the literal tectonic shift, the Pelicans also felt the slightest of waves. In the first half against the Knicks, Williamson took a knee-to-knee hit and suffered a minor knee bruise. He was shut down for the rest of the competition.
A few weeks later, the NBA announced that New Orleans would be booked for a franchise-record 30 national TV games, including on opening night and on Christmas. Excitement justifiably persisted.
When the preseason began, Williamson’s summer hiccup was overlooked almost immediately. His generational physicality was on display as his strength and explosiveness led him to perform as few rookies ever had—albeit in the preseason. But Williamson was held out of the Pelicans’ fifth exhibition game with knee soreness.
A third of the regular season has progressed and the NBA world is still waiting on an arrival years in the making.
On Dec. 18, it was reported that Williamson had returned to full weight-bearing exercises and had participated in a shootaround. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said that Williamson had made “really good progress” in his rehab process after needing a late-October meniscus surgery on his right knee. “I think we’re a little ways away yet, but today was a really big first step,” he said on Pelicans’ TV broadcast that night.
It was one small step for a man once considered not to be from mankind.
At 9-23, the Pelicans have one of the worst records in the NBA. They are again in the bottom third of league attendance. When Williamson hurt his knee at Duke, countless pundits and NBA players alike told him to end his college career months in advance. Isaiah Thomas tweeted “Zion sit you a** down lol…” Trae Young wrote “Zion Need to Chill Out the Rest of Season.”
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to feel that way again—or at least that the team ought not to rush him back—as we enter 2020. A surprising number of former top picks have missed large portions of their rookie seasons in recent years: Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Blake Griffin, to name a few. Plus, New Orleans is seemingly out of the playoff hunt, forcing the team to weigh the short-term with the long-term.
Any conversations about Williamson ending his rookie season before it even begins are likely for naught. Last year, he showed last season that he doesn’t care what the national punditry says about his status. Despite the countless calls for him to rest, he continued playing. Even after Duke lost in the NCAA Tournament, Williamson was spotted days later rocking the basketball support of a campus gym.
Plus, it’s clear from recent news he wants to play this season. ESPN’s Jorge Sedano reported Christmas night that the team is teaching Williamson how to walk and run differently, “working on the kinetic chain of his body.” He’s eager to return, Sedano and ESPN’s Andrew Lopez add, but the team needs to him to partake in a few full practices before he sees game action. He hasn’t participated in 5-on-5 drills yet, but the increasing number of video clips showing him shooting around show a debut will be coming down the line.
When he does return, whenever that day comes, he will again re-claim his one-name status and will likely continue flooding Twitter and Instagram with electrifying moments.
Williamson will soar again, but any aura of invincibility has vanished. When he does put on his No. 1 Pelicans jersey, there will be no debate, Zion Williamson is human after all.