Zion Williamson spun through the air at the United Center and cocked the basketball behind his head. This was what everyone wanted, Williamson ready to punish the basket with the kind of force only he could deliver.
The 360-degree, windmill slam would’ve been the perfect capper to his first All-Star event, the Rising Stars game, on Friday night. But like he’s been for opponents this season, the New Orleans rookie forward was just too strong.
The ball slammed against the back of the rim and ricocheted all the way past midcourt, the fans still buzzing after he missed.
Williamson’s U.S. Team won 151-131, but he wasn’t the most valuable player — that was Charlotte forward Miles Bridges. Williamson didn’t have the best dunk of the night — that belonged to Bridges too. But no one, not even All-Star starters Luka Doncic and Trae Young, captivated more people during the first day of All-Star weekend.
Williamson scored 14 points, 24 hours after establishing a new career high with the Pelicans of 32 points against Oklahoma City. He rubbed shoulders with President Obama, sat with cameras focused directly on him and flashed his superstar smile no matter how ridiculous the questions.
Who do you want to dunk on? (“Whoever I dunk on.”) How can someone be your valentine? (“Something from the heart.”) Do you know where Michael Jordan is right now? (“Check a golf course.”)
Oh, and he dunked so hard that the rim needed some work at halftime.
“I don’t know which dunk it was on,” he said slyly, “but I don’t think it was me.”
It was a lot — and with the Pelicans and the NBA counting on Williamson’s skill and charisma, it was good to see how easily he handled it all.
Williamson has reason to be especially happy these days, finally healthy after a knee injury sidelined him for the first four months and 44 games of the season. Ten games into his NBA career, Williamson has been fairly dominant, averaging 22.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists while making 57.6% of his shots.
The Pelicans have won six of their last nine games despite a tight loss Thursday to Oklahoma City. That game kept Williamson from getting into Chicago until after 2 a.m. Friday.
“Until the game time, I don’t think I could tell you what time it was throughout the day,” Williamson said. “It was just shootaround, event, event, media, media, arena. So it was a great experience, but it went by too fast.”
Still, he created moments, the most special coming on a between-the-legs lob from his former ninth-grade AAU teammate Ja Morant.
“I keep thinking never in a million years would I have thought we’d have been in this game or been in the situation we’re in,” Williamson said.
They’re here — the two best players in their rookie class with Morant in the pole position to win rookie of the year unless Williamson can do something pretty remarkable in the next 27 games, such as help the Pelicans reach the playoffs, as Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies might do.
It’s unlikely that Williamson can do it. But if Friday showed us that even a bricked dunk by Williamson can be edge-of-the-seat captivating, seeing him try over the final quarter of the season should be fun.
Whether it happens now or later, everyone seems pretty sure it’ll happen.
With Friday night wrapping up, Young was asked about the rim damaged by one of Williamson’s slams.
“He did?” Young asked. “I didn’t realize that. That isn’t the first rim he’s probably bent or that he’s going to break throughout his career.”
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