The NBA star has defied conventional wisdom with his ability to master qualities that few players can do.
He has the size of a big man. He also has point-guard skills. He can dominate against almost any opponent. He also receives the most joy when he empowers those around him.
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“My teammates trust in me to go out there and be who I am and try to make the right play,” New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson said. “But ultimately, I think it’s the confidence level. I never want to let my teammates down. So I always try to hunt for the best shot and hunt for the best play.”
That sounds like something Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James would say and do. For 18 NBA seasons, James has collected four NBA championships, four Finals MVP’s and four regular-season MVPs by mastering all of those qualities.
Yet, it would be a stretch to say that Williamson will develop into the same kind of player that James has become.
Sure, both entered the NBA as hyped rookies and backed up that buzz with actual substance. Sure, Williamson and James have enough strength and size to make their opponents feel like speed bumps anytime they try to stop them. And sure, Williamson and James have so much talent and positional versatility that coaches have varying ideas on how best to utilize their strengths.
But in only his second NBA season, the early reads suggest that Williamson has mirrored a different path than James. In the New Orleans Pelicans’ 128-111 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, they weren’t able to showcase those differences since James remains sidelined indefinitely with a high right ankle sprain. There is enough body of work, though, to analyze.
While James has thrived as mostly a small forward, Williamson has thrived as a power forward. Though both James and Williamson excel as playmakers, the Pelicans have given Williamson increased ball-handling responsibilities while the Lakers have sought to reduce those duties for James. Though both can attack the rim with force, James mostly does that on fast-break opportunities while Williamson so does any chance he can. With their varying skillsets, James averaged better numbers than Williamson during their respective second NBA seasons in points (27.2, 22.5), rebounds (7.4, 7.0) and assists (7.2, 3.4).
Williamson has evoked more appropriate comparisons to Charles Barkley and Larry Johnson. Last year, one scout told me he viewed Williamson as “a more polished Julius Randle,” and that was before Randle became an All-Star. These comparisons aren’t about potential, though, so much as they are about Williamson’s style of play.
That is because Williamson will become much better than any of those players. Williamson appears on track toward becoming the NBA’s next generational star simply by being himself. As New Orleans center Steven Adams observed, “there’s no one like him in the league.”
“Zion is great,” Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said. “He’s developing as a playmaker. He’s working on his shooting. All of that’s good, but it takes time. I don’t think you can say, ‘Okay, after the season we’re going to get this and then next year we’re going to get this.’ I don’t know. It could go faster. It could go slower. You just keep moving ahead.”
Williamson has moved ahead rather quickly.
Williamson scored at least 20 points in 21 consecutive games and 51 times overall during his first 60 career NBA games, something no one has done in the NBA since Michael Jordan. Williamson became the second-fastest player behind Shaquille O’Neal to score 1,000 career points in 43 games, a feat that took longer for Allen Iverson (45), Joel Embiid (48) and James (49) to reach. Should Williamson maintain his averages in points (25.7 points) and field-goal percentage (62.1%), he would join Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin McHale to post such numbers in a single season. Should Williamson maintain his league-leading 19.4 points per game in the paint, he would become the first NBA player to average such numbers since O’Neal did during the 2002-03 season.
Williamson offered promising signs his rookie season after the Pelicans drafted him at No. 1. But even though he averaged 22.5 points on 58.3 percent shooting along with 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists during his rookie season, Williamson remained limited because of varying circumstances. He missed the first 44 games while rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee. Then he faced a minutes restriction that entailed the Pelicans medical and coaching staff ensuring that Williamson played in only short bursts. Williamson missed nine days during the NBA season restart in the bubble because of what he called “an urgent family matter.” His absence contributed to the Pelicans’ inconsistency and missed playoff appearance. The Pelicans then fired coach Alvin Gentry.
“That’s really hard for Zion and it was really hard for Alvin Gentry,” Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “You’re coaching this phenomenal talent with so much potential that needs to get acclimated to the speed of the NBA game. But the doctors are saying, ‘You can only play him this much.’ This year, obviously, those restrictions are gone and Zion is literally wreaking havoc on the NBA.”
Part of that could be attributed to Van Gundy eventually featuring Williamson in an increased playmaking role. He has shown an improvement in assists from December (1.0) and January (2.8) compared to February (4.5) and March (3.6). By Williamson assuming that role, the Pelicans’ floor spacing has opened and their paint has become less clogged. Williamson also has maximized his driving abilities when he has the ball and his cutting when he doesn’t.
Yet, Van Gundy rightfully pointed to Williamson’s improved health as “probably the biggest reason for his development.” Williamson has missed only two games because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols and a minor right toe injury. Williamson has averaged more minutes per game this season (32.7) than last season (27.8) when the Pelicans limited his workload.
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“I’m able to read the defense a lot longer in the game than my rookie year where I’m playing four minutes here and that’s it,” Williamson said. “Just playing four minutes in this quarter and four minutes here, it was kind of tough to get into a flow. Now I can read the defense and get into the flow. Then I have more time in the game.”
Granted, Williamson remains far from a finished product.
Van Gundy has told Williamson to improve his defense and observed that would “tend to relax” off the ball and subsequently arrive late on a close out or a cut. He also does not appear equipped to guard the NBA’s elite big men. Although his conditioning looks sharper, Williamson still has more rust and some weight to shed off of his 6-foot-7, 284-pound fame. And the Pelicans are ranked 11th in the Western Conference, as opposed to the playoff contender they expected to be.
Still, do not view these issues as red flags. Van Gundy has reported Williamson showing improvement on defense both in effort and awareness. Van Gundy praised Williamson for encouraging teammates on the court and behind the scenes. Williamson devoted most of his offseason last year toward improving his strength and conditioning. The Pelicans’ issues have more to do with the need to upgrade their roster to complement Williamson and Brandon Ingram.
“My mindset from getting respect from the rest of the NBA is we got to win,” Williamson said. “When you win, you earn respect because the work is there and the record is there. My mindset with that is to try to help my team win.”
James also had that mindset during his NBA career, even when he missed the playoffs during his first two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“The thing that jumps out for me is him realizing the amount of work he had to put in and more importantly the amount of work he had to put in to set the example for everybody else,” said Malone, who joined the Cavs’ coaching staff during James’ third season. “He always was a hard worker. But I saw a change from a guy that was a really talented player that worked hard and becoming a guy that was consumed by the game and had drive to be the best. That was showing up early, being late, practicing.”
Time will tell if Williamson can master those same qualities. But even if Williamson does not have the same game as James, he has the necessary drive and mindset to become special in his own way.
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