Zion Williamson pump fakes vs. Rudy Gobert

Zion Williamson's talent, improvements earned him first All-Star berth despite tough competition in West

Sunday's NBA All-Star Game is on TNT at 7 p.m. Central
by Jim Eichenhofer

Amid its rotation of assorted commercials on repeat, for weeks NBA League Pass has shown the same 30-second highlight package of Zion Williamson athletic layups and soaring alley oop dunks – regardless of which team’s broadcast is airing. That means that even on the nights when the New Orleans Pelicans aren’t playing, basketball fans are still seeing Zion.

En route to earning his first NBA All-Star selection in 2020-21, Williamson at times seems to be everywhere. At 20, he’s already accumulated a long list of sponsors (Gatorade, Jordan Brand among others) that have him appearing in his own popular TV ads. He’s elevated the Pelicans to not only League Pass favorites, but a team granted 28 national TV appearances during the 72-game schedule.

This weekend, get ready for more Zion. The second-year pro will be a Western Conference All-Star reserve in Sunday’s game (7 p.m., TNT), after being voted in by the conference’s 15 head coaches, despite extremely formidable competition for roster spots. Williamson is the only current second-year NBA player tabbed, as well as the youngest All-Star selection (20 years, 244 days on Sunday) since LeBron James in 2005.

“As a kid, seeing all of those big events, like the All-Star Game, or whether it was college, high school, McDonald’s All-American, Jordan Brand (games), all those games, whenever you see those (players) in it, you were like, ‘It’s just an honor to be in it,’ ” Williamson said of being chosen. “You wanted to work hard and have a chance to be able to make the game. So yeah, it was something I dreamed about growing up.”

Though All-Star voting results aren’t made public, based on recent praise from some of the West’s head coaches, it should be no surprise that Williamson made the team, just 59 games into his pro career. He’s averaging over 25 points in 2020-21, while shooting over 60 percent from the field, a rare combination.

“It’s hard to imagine being better at the rim,” Utah’s Quin Snyder said, prior to Williamson posting 26 points and 10 rebounds in Monday’s upset win over the Jazz. “He’s such a great finisher and so good in the paint.”

“Zion is an incredible athlete,” Portland’s Terry Stotts said. “You try to keep him out of the paint, away from the rim. You see what he’s been doing lately, shooting at an unbelievable rate, mainly because he gets to the basket.

“For a young player, learning the league, learning what to expect, there is a lot to take in as a rookie and he battled some injuries as well (last season). I think what you’re seeing now is some experience and his game is evolving.”

Williamson has made improvements in virtually every statistical category compared to his rookie season, including in categories that can’t be attributed to his increase in minutes per game, such as free throw percentage.

“He’s doing so many things and playing in so many situations,” Snyder said of Williamson’s continually expanding game and versatility. “There’s more variety, and that makes it even more difficult to guard him.”

In three head-to-head games against Snyder’s Jazz club, Williamson averaged 28.3 points on 66 percent shooting. The Utah head coach probably figured he was done seeing the star forward as an opponent this season, but not quite: Snyder is the head coach for Team LeBron, meaning he’ll be matched up against Team Durant member Williamson one more time Sunday evening.

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