On Tuesday, Zion Williamson got his first crack at LeBron James, the face of the league for well over a decade, and Anthony Davis, the face of Zion's New Orleans Pelicans in the years preceding his arrival as the No. 1 pick of the 2019 NBA draft.
The loaded Los Angeles Lakers prevailed in Round 1, 118-109, thanks in large part to LeBron James' season-high 40 points on 17-of-27 shooting.
But Zion's 29 points, six rebounds, three assists, many bully-ball drives and constant leap-off-the-screen athleticism served as further reminders that he has next.
Over and over, Zion attacked Lakers defenders, whether AD, Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee, without a hint of fear. He attacked the paint like Mark Ingram II hits holes in the offensive line, lowering his center of gravity to a point that seems almost impossible for a man his size (6'6", 285 lbs). But even the best analogies fail when trying to describe how Zion explodes out of those lowered-shoulder drives.
That's part of why, on so many occasions, the Lakers bigs had no choice but to foul the young Pelican. He finished the game 13-of-19 from the free-throw line.
And his ninth straight 20-plus-point game put him one step closer to history, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
"The kid is special," LeBron told TNT's Chris Haynes after the game. "… In today's game, where it's a track race, it's fast-paced, it's high tempo, it fits his game perfectly."
When Zion has the chance to attack defenses before they get set, he's borderline unstoppable. He seems to be years ahead of the developmental curve when it comes to seeing cutting lanes and knowing when to exploit them. And he almost never forces bad shots.
Entering Tuesday's game, 74.6 percent of Zion's shots had come in the range of zero-to-three feet from the rim. He was shooting 68.9 percent on those shots.
His 8-of-18 performance against the Lakers marked just the second time in his career that he failed to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, but he still showed off the finishing ability that has led to the numbers above.
It's more than just the cock-back and two-handed hammer dunks. On one possession, Zion drove directly into AD, absorbed contact right after jumping, hung in the air longer than Davis, extended his arm and finger-rolled it in. At the speed and power with which he attacks the rim, his touch is almost unbelievable.
The raw athleticism he'll show at random moments throughout games is every bit as impressive.
In the second half of New Orleans' loss, Zion made Dwight's size and jumping ability look pedestrian on a rebound:
It's not all roses, of course.
There will be growing pains for Zion. LeBron's 40-point game could be a video suggestion box. He did plenty of his damage bullying Jrue Holiday in the post, but lines to the rim aren't always there, even for once-in-a-generation athletes. LeBron also showed off his fadeaway and went 5-of-11 from three.
Zion's first step and spin move are already devastating moves, but he'll need to round out his scoring arsenal over the next few years.
He'll probably never be the passer LeBron is, but he could learn a thing or two from the King on that front, too.
Zion will command loads of attention on drives and post-ups over the course of his career. On occasion, his teammates will have better looks than him, and he'll learn how to better identify and set them up over time. Again, he's not really forcing shots now, but he'll be even less predictable when defenders have to respect his passing a bit more.
The things he can pick up from AD are on the defensive end. Zion's block rate and steal rate in college made for an absurd combination. He averaged 2.9 steals and 2.5 blocks per 75 possessions. So far, those skills seem to be among the few displayed at Duke that haven't quite translated to the NBA...yet.
Davis, who averaged 6.6 blocks per 75 possessions during his lone season at Kentucky, entered the league as a defensive plus. It may take Zion a bit more time, but he clearly has the physical tools to get there. It will be about developing the timing and focus that were instinctual for AD.
As is the case with LeBron's passing, Zion may never reach Davis' level on defense. He's already showing hints of both superstars' games, though.
LeBron's size and athleticism felt unprecedented when he debuted in 2003. Zion brings that same feeling to his games. Davis was a force inside who showed some mid-range prowess in Year 1. Zion has owned the paint over his first 13 games while hitting the occasional three and showing a decent stroke from the line in games like this Tuesday matchup.
The rookie numbers of all three are instructive:
- Zion Williamson: 28.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 threes, 0.5 blocks per 75 possessions, 61.6 true shooting percentage, 2.3 box plus/minus
- Anthony Davis: 19.1 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.0 threes, 2.5 blocks per 75 possessions, 55.9 true shooting percentage, 2.5 box plus/minus
- LeBron James: 21.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 threes, 0.7 blocks per 75 possessions, 48.8 true shooting percentage, 1.7 box plus/minus
It's early. Zion hasn't even played 400 regular-season minutes yet. Comparisons to two of the game's best players, one of whom has an argument to be considered the greatest of all time, may feel premature. But one can't help but be excited about the immense potential he exhibits every time he suits up.
Zion's combination of size, athleticism and feel for the game seems like they came from the basketball equivalent of the machine that souped up Steve Rogers into Captain America.
He wasn't able to take down LeBron and AD on Tuesday. He may get several more chances if his Pelicans can earn the Western Conference's eighth seed and play L.A. in the first round of the postseason. As he develops his passing, counters and defense, he'll only give his team a better shot in that potential series.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference.