Zion Williamson: a generational talent - and poet - prepares to make his NBA debut




 

After missing 43 games with a knee injury, New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson is set to make his long-awaited season debut on Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs.

Why are so many fans and pundits so eager to see Williamson after his long layoff? Here's a quick primer on why Williamson is one of basketball's most intriguing players.

Why the excitement?

The 19-year-old rookie is considered by many to be the best professional basketball prospect since LeBron James. The No1 overall draft pick is listed at 6ft 6in and 284lbs with a 6ft 10in wingspan and 45 inch vertical leap - nearly two-thirds higher than the average vertical for an NBA player. Williamson's monstrous dunks became viral while he was still in high school and helped transform him into one of the most touted college prospects of all time. After enrolling at Duke for one season, he averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game - throwing down more huge dunks - and was the consensus top player in last year's draft class.

Why is he drawing comparisons to LeBron James?

Comparing anyone to James, the greatest player of his era, is unfair but the chatter about Williamson's generational athleticism is legitimate. He overwhelmed opponents in college by maneuvering his 280lbs frame to box out defenders and leaping over them at the rim for contested balls. His burst makes him unstoppable in fast-break settings. If he finds open space, he's a safe bet to get close to the rim for a high-percentage shot.

The focus on his physical abilities may overshadow his technical skills though. Williamson's deft footwork makes him dangerous on spin moves and hook shots near the rim. While he's undersized for an interior forward or center, opposing forwards and centers will struggle to block out or overpower a strong player with elite body control. As with any rookie, Williamson is raw but his explosiveness and fluidity make him more advanced than the standard "pure athlete".

He will succeed if…

He harnesses his physical gifts into dominance on both sides of the floor. Williamson is ready to be one of the league's most explosive players, but he'll single handedly freeze opposing defenses if he can reliably hit outside jump shots and improve his passing. Even in a league that features high-flyers like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Williamson should be one of the game's best finishers when he finds open routes to the bucket.

Defensively, he's physically equipped to lock down some of the league's most versatile players. Given the praise he's earned for his effort and attention to detail from several former teammates and coaches, it's fair to assume that he can be one of the league's best defenders within his first few seasons.

He won't fulfill the hype if…

He struggles with shooting. Some critics focus on his lack of shooting range as his biggest hindrance, but he hit big long-range shots at Duke and compiled a diverse and efficient shot chart in his lone collegiate season. His progress will hopefully mirror players such as Draymond Green and Blake Griffin, both of whom were unreliable shooters when they entered the league and have emerged as legitimate perimeter threats.

The bigger question may involve his knees. Williamson's shoe famously exploded during Duke's matchup with North Carolina in February and he played just nine minutes in the NBA Summer League before missing the rest of the campaign with a bruised knee. The October meniscus injury wasn't regarded as serious, but the Pelicans took a cautious three months instead of the expected four to six weeks to - hopefully - ensure he is completely fit upon his return. The foremost concern is that he'll be a larger version of Derrick Rose - a superstar whose body couldn't contain its own explosiveness.

More philosophically, the NBA is rich with some of the world's finest athletes, many of whom will feast on the prospect of limiting a player with as much hype and as many endorsements as Williamson. He is already one of the most famous players in the NBA and signed a contract with Jordan Brand worth an estimated $75m before he had even played a regular season game.

What are reasonable expectations?

For veteran NBA fans, Williamson resembles a modern version of Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley - a relentless physical presence with excellent finishing and rebounding skills. But the best comparison may be a more athletic Draymond Green: somebody who can defend any player on the floor, plays intelligently in the interior and has the motor to exhaust his opponents. Williamson doesn't have Green's perimeter savvy or passing skills, but he may do after a few years' experience. This year, look for Williamson's style to resemble those of Knicks forward Julius Randle: a skilled forward capable of scoring from most spots on the floor with the explosiveness to bait defenders and open space for his teammates.

Whatever Williamson ends up producing over the second half of this season, there will be plenty of curious viewers watching the Pelicans despite their terrible record.

And if the basketball doesn't work out …

He is a very talented poet. "I began making suggestions. Then all he did was write poems ... and the deeper we got into the year, the more complicated and sophisticated they became," one of his high-school teachers, Bill Pell, told ESPN last year. "They were remarkable."

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