ATLANTA—It took Zion Williamson exactly 104 (unofficial) seconds to announce his arrival to the NBA with a windmill thunder dunk that started somewhere around his mid-thigh, whipped around his head, and finished deep in the earth’s core.
“It was a lot of fun, first NBA game, first one of hopefully many,” he smiled after the game. “Glad to get that one under my belt.”
It’s not supposed to be this easy to make the transition from college to the pros, and it won’t be, but on this night, Williamson ran the court like he was still wearing a Duke jersey in Cameron Indoor. In a game with the matador defense of an All-Star Game — the score was 110-87, Pelicans, at the end of the third quarter, finishing at 133-109 — Williamson nonetheless forced his way into the NBA conversation, now and for the foreseeable future. He finished with 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting, with seven rebounds, three assists and three steals … plus a handful of dunks that will dominate Twitter for the next 12 hours.
Those dunks, man … those are going to be something to watch this year. Williamson followed that early windmill with a pump-jam from the heart of the paint, and then a stiff-legged throwdown midway through the second quarter. And each time, the hometown crowd responded with an, “OHHHHHHH!” like they’d taken a kick in a bad spot. It’s Zion’s go-to move, but it’s one he knows he can’t rely on all by itself.
“I don’t think just dunking would have gotten me here,” he said. “I had to be something of a good basketball player. But I’m glad to get the chance to showcase my abilities.”
Williamson was playing in the midst of the first of what will surely be a hundred media dustups, this one a gentle swirl over the comparisons of LeBron James — who played his first NBA game 16 years ago to the day — to Williamson.
"They shouldn't do that," Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry told ESPN before the game. "We are not doing that. We are comparing Zion to Zion. We want Zion to be the best Zion Williamson that he can be. Not anybody else. We want him to be the best basketball player he can become using his name and no comparison.”
Vince Carter, the ageless Jedi still suiting up for the Hawks, knows exactly what Williamson’s going through.
“The world we live in now, there are expectations, people will try to compare you to someone else,” Carter said after the game. “I remember coming out and people were trying to compare me to Michael Jordan. Michael’s Michael. I wanted to have fun and enjoy the game and show people what I can do.”
Even so, Williamson’s arriving in the league hauling a Mardi Gras float of expectations from all sides: teammates, opponents, media, fans. Before Monday’s game, State Farm Arena didn’t have the full-to-the-brim contingent of bandwagoners it usually draws whenever a big name comes to town. But there were enough fans sporting brand-new Pelicans No. 1 jerseys to make Williamson and crew feel at home.
As Williamson sat on the bench, singing along to the overhead sounds of Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” they bellowed his name, they extended jerseys helpfully stretched out on cardboard, they sported signs that looked suspiciously overenthusiastic for a guy none of them had ever heard of 16 months ago:
After his warmups, which mostly consisted of some ball-handling and agility drills, Williamson walked off the court and over toward the hungry crowd, and it was there he made a rookie mistake: he stopped moving. One too-long autograph led to a selfie led to another autograph, and before long the crowd had consumed Williamson like a Walking Dead horde. Pelicans assistants pried him out of the mire, perhaps with a bit of advice: sign and move, sign and move.
You see him carve his way through a defense like Thor arriving in Wakanda, and it’s easy to forget that Williamson was born in a year that starts with a “2.” But watch closely, and you’ll see it. His first basket of his NBA career — yeah, in a preseason game, but still — was a kiss off the left glass, and as it dropped, Williamson pumped his fist like the kid at the end of the church-league bench who finally got his first bucket. And he grinned during his postgame interview. Grinned! Nobody smiles in postgame interviews! Hasn’t anyone told him that?
“If it was up to me, I’d be out there laughing and joking more,” he smiled. “But at the same time, I’m a rookie. I’m trying to feel things out. If I feel like I can laugh and play, I’ll do it. But for now, low-key.”
He wasn’t perfect. His jump shot came and went, the Hawks were able to exploit the many holes in his defense, and his free throws were — well, not Shaq-like, but not good. (The merciless Sixth Man crew in Section 122 lit up Williamson with shouts of “O-VER-RA-TED!” and he responded by … missing both free throws.) The Pelicans ran a free-flowing offense with few set plays installed, and that left Williamson on the margins and out of position during many of the team’s possessions. But that’s the kind of problem that resolves itself quickly in practice.
“He had his moments, and he continues to improve,” Gentry said. “He’s got work to do defensively, but that’s the case with pretty much every kid that comes into this league.”
Plus, Williamson learned a bit about the vast difference between the NBA and, well, every other league. Late in the game, he drove the lane and tried a soft, left-handed floater. The Hawks’ Alex Len, six inches taller than Williamson, blocked the shot and knocked Williamson to the floor. If that had happened in Durham, Len would have been arrested and jailed without bail. Here? Play on, gentlemen.
“People are much stronger [in the NBA],” he said. “I’m going to have to find more skilled ways to score. But I feel like with my size, that’s not going to be a big adjustment.”
Just after the final horn, Williamson made his way over to the Hawks, embracing Trae Young and former teammate Cam Reddish. He was about to leave the court when Carter, 42, pulled him close to speak a few words in the young star’s ear.
“Enjoy it,” Carter said. “Live in the moment. They drafted you because of who you are and what you can do.”
What he can do is already pretty damn impressive. If he continues to improve, we’ll look back on this season as the start of something special.
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