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NEW YORK – Zion Williamson wanted to make one thing clear. He didn’t go to one of the finest restaurants in New Orleans and order chicken fingers.
In a half-hour session Wednesday before the NBA draft, Williamson liberally flashed his halogen grin, addressed the likelihood of starting his NBA career in New Orleans and buttressed questions about the great expectations he’s facing with reminders that he’s only 18 years old.
He also made it a point to clear up that he didn’t disrespect the iconic Commander’s Palace, an institution in the city as revered as the Manning family, with an order fit for Popeyes. Zion said that his 5-year-old brother, Noah, ordered the chicken fingers at Commander’s Palace.
Williamson said he ordered fried shrimp with mashed potatoes, something he enjoyed as much as the prospect of playing in New Orleans.
In his first extended meeting with the media since Duke’s Elite Eight loss in the NCAA tournament, here are five takeaways from Zion on the cusp of him becoming the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft.
Some clarity on New Orleans
Williamson appeared genuinely excited to be heading to New Orleans. He mentioned the Duke staff prepping him on the fast pace preferred by coach Alvin Gentry. He called the city “just welcoming,” noted that he enjoyed the vibe there and said that people were high-fiving him on the street during his visit. He added: “The city seemed very excited if I came there.”
Williamson wouldn’t come right and say he’s going to be on the Pelicans. But he also acknowledged the reality of playing alongside Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. He complimented Ball as a point guard and Ingram as a scorer, but said he hadn’t played against either in the AAU circuit.
While he only loosely addressed playing for the Pelicans, as to not take his No. 1 selection for granted, he did make clear what it would mean to become the No. 1 pick. “Every kid dreams about being the No. 1 pick,” he said. “It’d be a huge honor.”
He also isn’t intimidated by becoming the face of a franchise: “I think I am ready to be the face,” he said. He added that New Orleans team officials impressed him: “I felt like they kept it real. It’s not like they were trying to be my friend. They kept it business and just telling me how it was going to be if they drafted me.”
Zion played AAU ball with Ja Morant for the South Carolina Hornets during Zion’s freshman year of high school. He played alongside RJ Barrett during his freshman year at Duke.
He received plenty of questions about both, noting that Morant was “cold-blooded” and that he felt Barrett would be ready to handle the demands of playing in New York.
The news of Mike Conley being traded broke while Williamson was doing his interview session. Williamson said Morant should be able to handle the burden of being the face of the Memphis Grizzlies.
“The way he threw lobs at Murray State, he was doing it back then,” he said of Morant in AAU. “I’d make backdoor cuts and I didn’t think he’d see me, and he’d put it in the perfect spot. Can I sit here and say that I knew Ja would be this good? I can’t sit here and say that. I knew he’d be good, but not to this level. For him to be a top-three pick, it means a lot to the state of South Carolina.”
Zion on Zion
Perhaps Zion’s most insightful answer for the scope of his career came from a general question about goals he’d want to accomplish.
“Kind of everything,” he said. “MVP, Rookie of the Year. Eventually like possibly Defensive Player of the Year. Hall of Famer. If you don’t hold yourself to those standards or try to carry yourself as such, then I don’t know what you’re striving for.”
Big man on the market
The hype for Williamson to enter the NBA dunk contest began months ago. Williamson said Wednesday that right now he’s leaning against participating in the dunk contest, because he said it’s not something that he’s focused on.
He did leave a window to change his mind. “If I’m feeling it, if I’m in the mood for it around the time, then, yeah, I’ll think about it. It’s not something that I’m thinking about for a whole year, like I’m going to do the dunk contest. When it comes around, I might do it.”
It’s likely that whatever sponsors are paying him millions are going to encourage him to enter. Williamson wore a pair of white Nikes to his press conference, complementing his black jeans and tan, striped sweater.
He said there hasn’t been any choices made about what sneaker company he’s planning to sign with. When asked if anything should be read into his shoe choice, he laughed and said with a big smile, “I mean, guys, I gotta wear something, right? I can’t come in here with no shoes.”
Williamson is the most anticipated prospect to enter the NBA marketing machine since LeBron James in 2003. Zion’s first shoe deal is expected to be in the range of $100 million.
Still a kid
Spending a half-hour posted up at Zion’s podium, it’s clear that he’s still young. He see-sawed his upper body back and forth while answering questions and his contagious smile appeared over and over again.
He used his age (18) to deflect a few questions and kept hitting on three themes. Over and over, he said he wanted to be the “best version of myself” and “I try to make everything fun.”
The third theme revolved around him saying: “I’m just a simple dude.” Williamson said he has no celebratory plans for after the draft. He’ll likely go out to dinner with his family.
As for the moment that’s about to come, Williamson said, “It’s been a movie.”
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