Early Days: Zion Williamson lives up to the hype

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Zion Williamson
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned about Zion Williamson over the first 10 games of his NBA career, it’s that the spotlight isn’t too bright for him on the court.

But it also seems that Williamson is a reluctant superstar. Not in the way that would lead you to have concerns about his ability to lead the Pelicans to heights that fans have dreamed of for nearly two decades, but in a way that reveals his “team first” mentality.

Nearly every night, Williamson has done something historic or spectacular. Most nights, it’s been both.

Thursday against Oklahoma City, Williamson put on another superlative performance. He scored a career-high 32 points in 31 minutes. He has 221 points this season, making him the first rookie to top 200 points in his first 10 games since Brandon Jennings during the 2010-11 season.

And yet, the Pelicans are just 5-5 with Zion in the lineup (he lost four games last season at Duke). They sit 5.5 games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference, chasing Memphis and current Rookie of the Year front-runner Ja Morant.

However, if you spend your time tracking what most of the “legitimate” media is talking about, Zion’s weight, minutes, and dunks are far more important than the playoff hunt.

After each game reporters huddle around Alvin Gentry, Williamson, opposing coaches and players, and ask about Zion’s latest jaw-dropping stat line or physical feat.

Zion still smiles…but it isn’t the same ebullient, broad, youthful smile that first night against San Antonio. There is a photo of Zion hanging from the rim. His expression is grim, brooding. It’s beautiful.

Take away the caption. Just look at him. There’s the switch. You see in one image, captured in the fraction of a fraction of a second, a competitor who will not accept 5-5. The number that matters to him resides in the win column, and Zion Williamson is willing to do whatever it takes, from scoring to rebounding to defending, to add to it.

He just needs time to figure out how and when to do everything it takes to be a winner in the NBA.

“I do get those feelings where I’m like, ‘Alright. I just gotta take over.’, and I do what I can to help my team win with a takeover mindset, said Williamson. But then I start getting into my own head, “I don’t want to make the mistake, I don’t want to hurt my team more than I can help it.’ So, I start second-guessing instead of just going.”

I think Williamson will enjoy his All-Star experience, but it was something else he said Thursday that there are other places he’d like to be just as much.

“I’m happy to get the break just so my teammates can get some rest and go spend time with their families,” he said. “But for me, I wish we could keep playing.”

That’s the Zion Williamson that David Griffin said that he and Alvin Gentry sat with at the NBA Draft Lottery months ago.

He is as raw as sushi as much as he is refined and sugar. He has to become a better team and on-ball defender, rebounder, and passer. He’ll have to continue to work at his free throw shooting and ball-handling, as well.

Because he’s only 19 years old.

At the same time, his footwork and first step are unbelievable. He recognizes and exploits open spaces in the defense quickly. His hands are perfect.

He is able to go over, through, and around defenders. He is a problem.

And he’s only 19 years old.

I’m not worried about the fame or the scrutiny getting to Zion Williamson. I think he can deal with it just fine. He gets that it’s part of the deal when you’re special.

It doesn’t mean that he has to like hearing the same questions and doubts each day; the incessant and immediate decisions as to whether he’ll be a superstar or a flaming comet.

Zion Williamson is an impressive athlete. He’s also an impressive young man.

“My thing is, embrace it,” said former New Orleans franchise-player Chris Paul, of the pressures placed on the current one. “The thing about the city is that they love that grit, that hard work…I always say, the people of the city make the city. And they’re always gonna respect you and cheer for you as long as you compete and go hard…Now you got Zion, so I think [the Pelicans] are in great hands.”

I agree. I also agree with Zion. I wish they could keep playing, too.

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David Grubb

David Grubb

Sports 1280am host/CCS reporter

David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…

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