There is never any shortage of amazing new players that arrive in the NBA at the beginning of the season. A bumper crop of neophytes always turned heads – whether it was the incredible debut of LeBron James in 2003 or when the tantalizing talent of Anthony Davis entered the league in 2012.
This season is no exception. The Charlotte Hornets’ LaMelo Ball took the world by storm with his passing wizardry and low-key incredible transition jams. Tyrese Haliburton of the Sacramento Kings and No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves have also come on strong as of late. They’ve provided excitement for the NBA fan who’s hungry to see what fresh talents can bring to the table.
That’s the nature of the NBA culture. We look forward to the next big thing, the shiny potential superstar, projecting him to be a future Hall of Famer with the way he plays from game to game.
But lost in the shuffle is the reality that despite the awesome rookie class of 2020, those that came before them – the superstars in waiting that we turned our heads away from – are absolutely killing it.
Which brings us to Zion Williamson.
Lest we forget, we haven’t had that many opportunities to break down and dissect the 2019 first overall pick. After all, he actually began last season on the shelf, only joining the New Orleans Pelicans for a scant few games before the season shut down. And inside the Orlando Bubble, Williamson was a shell of himself – clearly out of rhythm and not in the right condition to compete for a playoff berth. As a result, the Pelicans flamed out and decided to just move on and prepare for the next season.
So in essence, this is our first full season of Zion. And what he’s done thus far shows everyone that he’s not your average sophomore player in the NBA who can easily be forgotten.
Let’s be clear about one thing: the development of Williamson has resulted in a significant improvement of his game, but not the Pelicans’. The team is still a work in progress. They still have a lot of decisions to make regarding the pieces to surround Williamson with moving forward. For one, is Brandon Ingram the right All-Star to pair with Zion? And how can they unclog the frontcourt, which is currently being protected by perimeter-deficient big men in Steven Adams and Jaxson Hayes?
Those are important questions for another day. After all, the Pelicans have Williamson locked up for several seasons, giving them several opportunities to contend for the playoffs. But even if they have time on their side, they can’t waste these formative years of Williamson. For a player with his skillset, humility, and highlight-worthiness, every season is an opportunity for growth.
And speaking of growth, it is pretty remarkable how much Zion’s game has improved. His efficiency is up across the board. What already was a gaudy 58.3 percent from the field in his rookie season rose to 62.4 percent shooting. His advanced stats also show his improvements: 27.9 Player Efficiency Rating (PER); 66.2 percent True Shooting Percentage (TS%); and 2.6 Value Over Replacement Player (VORP).
In summary, the Pelicans have in their lineup one of the most unstoppable offensive forces in basketball today. When Zion has the ball and is determined to get into the paint, he either makes the basket or gets fouled. It’s uncanny how he uses his physicality to bully others in the paint, then switches it up with a gentle finger roll or bank shot to ensure two points. His knowledge and timing on the offensive end are already so advanced.
The Pelicans are such a compelling watch because of Williamson. Coach Stan Van Gundy has not been shy about putting the ball in his hands and watching him create for himself or others. Though his assist numbers don’t stand out, Williamson is the catalyst of his team’s offense. Defenders are so scared when he gets a full head of steam that they scramble to slow him down and build a wall around him. That leaves his teammates with more space and opportunities to knock down shots. That’s why Lonzo Ball, supposedly the team’s point guard has become a spot up shooter and is nailing treys at a career-high rate. It’s the Zion code – just give him space and watch him create.
The sky’s the limit for Zion Williamson. His play is a reminder that all new things that glitter aren’t always the most valuable. His ascent into the list of must-watch players proves that. Fans know that he’s trying everything in his powers to steer the Pelicans into the playoffs this early in his career. There might be no better show in town than that.