"We want Zion to be the best Zion Williamson he can be"

Ahead of Zion & The Pelicans coming to the UC, Sam Smith Looks at the Expectations Surrounding the Rookie
by Sam Smith

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Zion is coming into the NBA as the most anticipated rookie since LeBron James, though the Pelicans have him focused on being the best version of himself that he can be.

Zion Williamson, the No. 1 overall draft pick from Duke, is not the best player in the NBA. But the New Orleans Pelicans rookie who is scheduled to play against the Bulls in the United Center Wednesday may well be the NBA's premier attraction this season.

Golden State Warriors? On hiatus with injuries. KD, too. LeBron and AD? Russ and Harden? Interesting, but mostly been there, seen that. Giannis? Make a jumper and we'll get back to you. This 6-6, 285-pound 19-year-old who in his NBA debut Monday had teammates jumping from the bench in anticipation of his dunks is probably the most anticipated NBA rookie since James in 2003.

Zion talks to the media

Williamson didn't disappoint in his debut in Atlanta Monday, dunking three times in the Pelicans 133-109 win, including less than two minutes into the game with a thunderous windmill dunk over Damian Jones that became something of an omen. The Zionator added a double pump and a throw-down that hit oil. As Darryl Dawkins might have said, it was a thunder flying, Jones crying, teeth shaking, rump roasting, wham bam jam.

"I don't think just dunking would have gotten me here," Williamson said afterward. "I had to be something of a good basketball player."

Though he also offered a lesson for others about how Zion approaches the game.

"This isn't high school or college anymore," Williamson said. "You've got to go up strong."

This came perhaps an hour or so after Williamson also made fans cry.

The engaging rookie in a somewhat rare departure for players these days took a break during pregame warmups to wade into the crowd to sign autographs.

Zion greets some Pelicans fans

"It looks like he has great character and great talent," Bulls coach Jim Boylen said after Tuesday practice. "I guess I understood his talent is exceptional and his athleticism is legendary. I just like the spirit he plays with, the energy he brings. He seems to enjoy when his teammates have success and plays with emotion. I like guys like that. He brings juice to the building. I think it's great for the league. Phenoms like him, guys like him help us all. They help the whole league. They raise the profile of the league, the excitement for the league. People are going to circle that game now as a big game when they come in. That's important. That helps the league and helps us all."

Now if he will play.

There's no indication Williamson won't. Though the fashion around the NBA these days, especially among all-stars, has been about being too big to play in the preseason, especially. Even the likable Giannis Antetokounmpo succumbed as he skipped the Bucks opening preseason game Monday in the United Center. Yes, he was resting after not playing yet. Very cool.

It's perhaps not quite the existential threat for the NBA, which has some other distractions these days.

But it's still a concern the NBA has about its generally popular and appealing players distancing themselves from the public, especially the ones paying to watch games in the arena. Some team executives have found themselves having to tread carefully amid the minefield of players' friends, family and agents who advise them it's a lack of respect when their teams won't let them rest as much as other stars. "It's like a badge of honor," one GM with a recalcitrant star explained. "It's become a form of placating players who want to be important enough to have to be rested."

When many grew up humming wanting to be like Mike.

Many certainly haven't been, and hopefully that begins to change with someone like Zion.

It was a different time for the NBA when Michael Jordan arrived in 1984. The league was a year past instituting a salary cap because perhaps a half dozen teams were facing bankruptcy. The salary cap, effectively, represented a partnership between the players and the league to secure this valuable entity. No such financial necessities remain with franchises now literally worth billions of dollars and average player salaries close to eight figures.

None of that, however, mattered much to Mike. Which is also how you become Mike.

Jordan famously in his first contract had included the so called "Love of the Game" clause than enabled him to play basketball whenever and wherever he wanted. Typical NBA contracts limit where a player can play in the offseason for fear of injury. Then as Jordan's celebrity grew and he became if not the face of the league it's most popular attraction, Jordan innately understood his responsibility to the game and the fans.

MJ talking to media

He just played. Well, he wanted to, anyway. Especially in preseason games in non-NBA cities — the Bulls played eight or nine preseason games then compared to five now — and even in back to back situations. The team would be willing to let Jordan sit out, but he'd explain that this might be the only chance some fans had to see an NBA game, to see him. Not because of ego, but responsibility. He'd play, and once Jordan played, it was on.

Is competing that antiquated?

Not to indict the league because most players do come to preseason games as well to compete. The Bulls have been all hands in. But especially on the road, and especially if you know they're going to see you, is there a responsibility to your league? Your craft? Even yourself?

Williamson was electric and eclectic in his debut. Because the Pelicans are in the Western Conference, they come to Chicago just once in the regular season. This season it will be Feb. 6, just before the All-Star break. Will Zion be resting that night for the dunk contest?

Zion before his NBA preseason debut

The Pelicans seem to understand the potential talent they fell into with their lottery luck, and they are being conservative.

"We're not drinking that Kool-Aid," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said before Monday's game. "We're not going to say that he's LeBron James or any of those guys. Hard to take a 19-year-old kid and say this is what you are going to be until he experiences all those things. We are just making sure we're not putting extra pressure on him. We are comparing Zion to Zion. We want Zion to be the best Zion Williamson he can be. Not anybody else. We want him to be the best basketball player he can become using his name and no comparison."

Williamson played 28 minutes in Monday's New Orleans victory with 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists. He's not Jordan, though teammates do tend to stand around at times waiting to see what's next. Heck, the Bulls get a rare national TV game Wednesday on ESPN because of Zion. Hey, wasn't Zion the name more associated with an actual king? Sure, his shot is awkward, he can be loose with the ball and he is small for an inside player. There's no more circus in the United Center. Wednesday's high wire act could be more impressive.

Coby and Zion playing in the NCAA

The Bulls Wednesday, meanwhile, likely will be without Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison, Luke Kornet and Shaquille Harrison with injuries. Rookies Coby White and Daniel Gafford look to expand on positive debuts in Monday's loss to Milwaukee.

Here's a look at the 2019 Top 10 Draft picks in their NBA preseason debuts:

Rookie Minutes FG Reb Ast Pts
Zion Williamson 28 6-13 7 3 16
Ja Morant 19 5-8 1 7 10
RJ Barrett 39 6-13 7 3 17
De'Andre Hunter 25 4-6 2 2 10
Darius Garland 14 4-4 1 2 9
Jarrett Culver 25 5-8 3 0 11
Coby White 25 3-10 2 1 12
Jaxson Hayes 5 1-2 3 0 2
Rui Hachimura 21 4-83 4 2 12
Cam Reddish 15 4-7 2 1 11

That's right, Barrett played 39 minutes. Hey, no one's asking for that!

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