Column: Zion Williamson lives up to hype in preseason debut

Pelicans forward Zion Williamson throws down a dunk against the Hawks during the first half Monday.
(John Bazemore / Associated Press)

Zion Williamson is a tank with springs for wheels. He addresses former players like Ramon Sessions with “Mr.” in front of their name. He’s a highlight waiting to happen. He looks like football pads are hidden under his warmup shirt. When he gathers his feet and prepares to jump, the anticipation of his dunk will push your eyebrows up to your hairline.

He loves to smile. He plays basketball like the caps lock key is stuck in the On position.

And, now, he’s here and you can get caught up in his body of work.

Williamson, the No. 1 pick in last spring’s draft, has been in the NBA for one preseason game and it feels like he might be impossible to saddle with hyperbole — though everyone expects people to try.

The LeBron James comparisons? Stop them now. New Orleans head coach Alvin Gentry wants to shut that down now — let “Zion be the best Zion Williamson he can be. Not anybody else,” Gentry said.


He’s why ESPN will be broadcasting a Pelicans-Bulls game from Chicago on Wednesday night.

Williamson scored seven points in the first quarter on three made baskets Monday. The first was a display of the kind of brute strength that virtually no rookies enter the NBA with — especially a rookie that hasn’t had a 20th birthday.

The next two were superhero dunks, combining that super-human strength with the power of flight. He finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes during a 133-109 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

There were some issues because there would be in a teenager’s first professional game. Williamson’s foot can stick on the gas pedal causing him to move too quickly at times. He’d look at his dominant left hand after turnovers as if he was surprised it could’ve betrayed him.

Gentry said he saw some good and some bad in his prized rookie — defensive play that needs to be improved at the top of that list. It’s going to be a dance that Gentry is on all season, avoiding the obvious high praise and excitement that could be given to Williamson without causing anyone to flinch.

His potential is obvious but the challenge will be allowing him reach it before the expectations crush him.


It’ll be tough, though, to keep it together when Williamson is on the court. There are those pogo-stick legs, the semi-truck shoulders and a genuine desire to have as much fun as possible when he’s on the floor.

And the feel for the game? The right pass, the right play, the right move? It’s all there.

“It was a lot of fun,” Williamson said in a way that made it not seem like a cliché.

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Oct. 7, 2019

Fans held signs and one was brought to tears when she met Williamson pregame. And yeah, part of it is the dunking, but even in a preseason game, one where he played good but not great, it just feels like there’s something bigger happening.

“I don’t think dunking would have just gotten me here,” Williamson said. “I had to be like somewhat of a good basketball player to get here.”

The most fun part about Williamson is that we don’t know exactly where “here” is. Is it merely an exhibition basketball game? Is it the start of a rookie-of-the-year season? Is it the key to the Pelicans’ resurgence? Is it the first words of the next chapter of basketball being written?

No one can say for sure, it all seems on the table. There are those who fear for his health, who wonder how ligaments, cartilage, bones and joints support that kind of frame over an 82-game season. Maybe, as the Hawks’ fans who witnessed the opener chanted, he’s overrated.

But it’s less fun to think that way and more fun to enjoy Williamson for what he is already, and that’s a must-watch attraction ready to do something that will cause your jaw to drop.


He did Monday a few times — and he’s probably just getting started.

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Oct. 7, 2019