Few players will be under more of a spotlight when the NBA season starts than New Orleans Pelicans star Zion Williamson after he missed the 2021-22 campaign with a foot injury.
While being the face of a franchise expected to bounce back and lead the way for the foreseeable future at just 22 years old comes with plenty of pressure, he explained to Tres Dean of GQ that he sees a bit of himself in and takes inspiration from Naruto, which is a long-running manga/anime franchise.
Williamson is such a fan of the phenomenon that launched in Japan in 1999 that he worked with the Jordan Brand to design a sneaker collection incorporating parts of the story that, as Dean put it, "have resonated with him over the years."
The Duke product also sees some parallels to his own life from when his stepfather, Lee Anderson, coached him as a youngster.
"For a while nobody took Naruto seriously," he said. "And then he went and trained with [master shinobi] Jiraiya for three years, right? And he came back at 16 years old, goated."
Williamson looked well on his way to becoming "goated" when he was a highly regarded recruit who then became a household name during his one collegiate season with the Blue Devils. He made the most of that one season as the Associated Press Player of the Year, Wooden Award winner, Naismith Award winner, consensus All-American, ACC Rookie of the Year and ACC Tournament MVP.
New Orleans then took him No. 1 overall in the 2019 NBA draft in a move that immediately made him the cornerstone of the franchise.
While Williamson played just 24 games as a rookie, he looked well on his way to superstardom during his second season when he averaged 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game while shooting 61.1 percent from the field.
Yet that individual momentum came to a grinding halt when he missed the 2021-22 season with a foot injury. Throw in a report from Christian Clark of NOLA.com in September 2021 suggesting there was some tension between him and the organization centered around how it handled his injuries, and there was plenty of uncertainty.
"It's been a lot," Williamson said. "I can sit here and explain it, but nobody will really be able to feel it the way I did. My foot was broken and I couldn't magically heal it. It hurt, because I love the game of basketball. But because of it I was experiencing hate and pain from people I don't know every day, and it started to wear on me."
He figures to be healthy and on the court again in 2022-23 and is drawing inspiration from one of his favorite sources.
"I had to come to a realization," he said. "No matter what the world is saying, I have to remember that I am who I am and stay true to that. That's what Naruto did, and that's what I'm going to do."
If Williamson fulfills expectations while doing just that, there may be a lot more Naruto fans in New Orleans in the future.