Zion Williamson is focused on the Bulls and his improvement, not the hype

K.C. Johnson
NBC Sports Chicago

As Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry addressed a huge throng of reporters covering Monday's morning shootaround at the United Center, Zion Williamson left the court and headed towards the tunnel to the locker rooms.

"He's not leaving," Gentry said, laughing. "I promise you."

Nevertheless, several reporters left Gentry to follow Williamson, who later talked outside the Pelicans' locker room.

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"At least I know where I stand," Gentry cracked, again laughing.

Yes, welcome to Zion Zaniness, which will ensue at NBA arenas across the country. Williamson gets it.

"I don't think it's overwhelming doing something I love," Williamson said. "I'm living my dream."

Gentry is the perfect coach to help handle the hype surrounding Williamson, who will play "probably 20" minutes Monday night against the Bulls. The veteran NBA coach has seen a little bit of everything during his close to three decades in the league.

"We're not downgrading his talent. We're just not going to compare him to anyone," Gentry said. "We want him to be the best Zion he can be... I just think it's important we understand what we're dealing with here and try not to jump the gun on anything. It's a process. It's not anything that is going to happen overnight. I think we all know that. Our goal is to make sure he's better every single day. His goal is to make sure he's better every single day. As long as we're on that path, I think we'll be fine."

Williamson did nothing to quell the hype in his preseason debut against the Hawks, throwing down highlight-reel dunks and displaying the freakish athleticism that made him the No. 1 pick in last June's draft and one of the most hyped rookies in recent history.

Williamson isn't focused on the hype.

"I just have to work on trusting my game," he said. "I'm not going to change who I am. Because I remember there was a time when I didn't have all this (hype) and I was the same person. So never going to change."

Williamson smiled his way through questions about Coby White, the history of the United Center and whether he and Zach LaVine on the same court could be a preview of the dunk contest at the February All-Star Game in Chicago.

"I knew that question was coming," Williamson said. "It's a basketball game, and if we dunk it's whatever. I don't think we'll be doing nothing crazy out there.''

On White, who he played against in the vaunted Duke-North Carolina rivalry: "I remember (Duke) Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) is like, ‘If we score it doesn't matter. Coby is pushing it,'" Williamson said. "Man, for my second game back that was a fast-tempo game. I was kind of tired like in the first three minutes, but I battled through it and it was a tough win.''

On the United Center's history with Michael Jordan: "This building is obviously special because this man won six rings here – not all six of them here – but he won six banners. Proud to be part of the Jordan family, so it's an honor to be able to play on this court.''

Williamson signed an endorsement deal with Jordan Brand. And he's appreciative of Gentry helping him through this process.

"I think sometimes people can run with unrealistic expectations," Williamson said. "So with them just helping me gain confidence in being myself it helps a lot.''

Gentry said fans lined up at noon for a 6 p.m. open practice in New Orleans. The hype will exist, and Gentry is confident Williamson's greatness will come. He's just trying to help handle it all.

"Obviously, it's good for our franchise. We get a lot of notoriety," Gentry said. "He's such a great kid, hard worker. He understands he has a lot of work to do. He's willing to put in the work. But he's going to be fine.

"We're just going to make sure it's done properly and there's no timetable for him to dominate the league. He's going to continue to work. He'll arrive there. . . . He's a very coachable guy, but that's not really a surprise. Smart guy. Very smart. Knows the game. And he's a willing worker who wants to get better. He doesn't mind you sitting down with him showing the weaknesses that he has to work on and he'll go right back out and do anything he can to improve in those areas."

Zion Williamson is focused on the Bulls and his improvement, not the hype originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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