Zion Williamson's Electrifying Debut Sends a Jolt Through the NBA

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2020

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 22: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans drives the ball around LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs at Smoothie King Center on January 22, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.   (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

For Zion Williamson, the mere act of meeting expectations can be transcendent.

When you combine the most predraft buzz in a decade, add a thoroughly dominant preseason and then throw in a half-season of restless anticipation, it produces unreasonable quantities of hype.

But during a four-minute flurry in the fourth quarter of the New Orleans Pelicans' 121-117 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, Williamson lived up to all of it.

Those months Williamson spent rehabbing showed in the early going. He initially appeared hesitant, looking to pass as soon as he touched the ball and struggling to find a rhythm. The excuses were obvious: In addition to that long layoff, he was trying to settle himself into the action while shuttling on and off the floor in short bursts, typically for around four minutes at a time.

During the first three quarters, he bobbled passes, committed a charge, practically handed the ball to Trey Lyles once and ultimately coughed up five turnovers on the night.

There were flashes, though.

Williamson found a cutting Brandon Ingram for a driving dunk.

He hustled for rebounds, sometimes elevating over taller defenders to get his hands on the ball. He pushed in transition, displaying top-end grab-and-go skills. And he drew plenty of defensive attention in half-court sets, routinely attracting a second Spurs defender in the mid-post.

Those isolated sparks during the first three quarters didn't quite satisfy those hoping for fireworks.

But in the fourth quarter, Williamson ignited the entire arena.

Starting at the 9:47 mark of the fourth quarter and concluding when he hit a free throw with 5:44 remaining, the 19-year-old accounted for 21 straight Pelicans points. He assisted buckets by Josh Hart and E'Twaun Moore before reeling off an incomprehensible 17 points in just over three minutes. He drilled four three-pointers during that span, the last of which put New Orleans briefly ahead in a game it mostly spent trailing by double digits.

That closing burst left Williamson with a final line of 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, seven rebounds and three assists. He hit all four of the threes he attempted.

There's no denying those four made treys felt flukey. But what better illustration could there be of his capacity to enthrall than a whole bunch of buckets scored quickly and unexpectedly? Isn't uncertainty and surprise exactly what made him such a singularly entertaining player at Duke?

No, three-point shooting isn't on the short list of gifts that sets Williamson apart. He hit only 24 threes during his 33 games with the Blue Devils. But defiance of convention is what makes him special.

He is physically incomparable, a power-and-speed combination the likes of which nobody has ever seen on a basketball court. There's no adequate historical precedent for Zion. All your player comps are invalid. He's sui generis. One of one. Unique in the truest sense.

For that reason, it's basically impossible to know what he's capable of doing. That's why all of those threes, even if they seemed like a hallucination, felt paradoxically right.

Of course he did something incredible, something wholly unexpected.

Of course he put on a show that nobody could have foreseen.

There'll be plenty of time for the usual worries. We can agonize later over New Orleans' optimal rotations, Williamson's role and what it all might mean for a Pels team with a good shot at surging toward a playoff spot.

For now, it's probably best just to appreciate the breath of fresh air Zion's debut represented.

In an era of exhaustive analytics, widely available game film, granular analysis and the fraught and contentious information overload of NBA Twitter, it gets harder and harder to preserve a sense of wide-eyed wonder and uncertainty.

There will surely be other moments, plenty of which will be even more thrilling than what we saw Wednesday. But that four-minute run during which Williamson left everyone stunned by rising to seemingly unreachable expectations in his debut?

That was special—both expectedly and unexpectedly so.

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