If it’s still possible to look at Zion Williamson without googly eyes, allow me to temper expectations a tad about the anointed young phenom: He’s not a guaranteed franchise savior. He should be, but more than some of the other runaway No. 1 picks he is already being breathlessly compared to — Ewing, Shaq, LeBron — his development is at the mercy of his presumptive new team, the New Orleans Pelicans.
Williamson is certain to bring excitement, relevance and an endless reel of highlights to New Orleans. And he’s bringing those breathtaking talents to the Big Easy at the perfect time, with the organization clinging to hope that its new leader, David Griffin, can convince superstar Anthony Davis to rescind his trade request. As the winner of the Zion Sweepstakes during the NBA draft lottery Tuesday night, the Pelicans have new life, but they also have an incredible challenge. While Williamson is instantly marketable and figures to be a very good player at worst as long as he stays healthy, it will take an especially creative organizational approach to help him become a transcendent superstar.
It’s not because there is something wrong with Williamson’s game or his mind-set. It’s the fact that he is so different. There is no prototype for him; he is the prototype. At 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, he’s a defensive end in sneakers, a player whose combination of power, motor, leaping, agility, savvy and passion create an evolutionary marvel. You see a little of a lot of notable talents in him. Depending on how you tilt your head, you see some Dominique Wilkins in there, some young Larry Johnson, some Blake Griffin, some Charles Barkley. But there isn’t a comparison that feels just right. That’s what should make the Pelicans giddy and a bit nervous because they have such an enormous responsibility.
Williamson is not LeBron James, who fits in any system. He’s actually kind of like a gigantic Kyler Murray, the diminutive No. 1 overall NFL draft pick last month, in that you have to create a system to his specifications. In all sports, this is becoming an era of positional defiance. The athletes don’t fit neatly into traditional models and beliefs anymore, and if you force old philosophies on them, you can inhibit the development of a special talent.
Williamson isn’t just vital to the future of the Pelicans. It’s important for basketball — for the longevity of this age of positionless basketball — that David Griffin and the organization get this right. It opens so many possibilities if Williamson can maximize his potential. But it’s not as simple as nurturing him, retaining Davis and putting shooters around them for ideal floor spacing.
It will be easy to sell tickets and have fans come to watch Williamson dunk, but there is so much more to his game. During Williamson’s stopover at Duke this season, Coach Mike Krzyzewski tapped into those traits. You saw his uber-athletic Draymond Green potential with Williamson’s ability to create for others, fly around on defense and play anywhere on the court. He doesn’t have the 7-foot-3 wingspan and court vision of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but in time, you could envision Williamson functioning well on a team built the way the Milwaukee Bucks are. They surround the Greek Freak with shooting and versatility and he roams the court as he pleases, making plays for everybody, anchoring the defense and dominating in the paint even though he starts most possessions on the perimeter.
To get the best out of Williamson, the Pelicans will need to rob from many teams and then add some of their own ingredients. In the 17 years since the franchise relocated from Charlotte, innovation hasn’t exactly been a strength. However, wearing on the nerves of its stars has been a problem. Chris Paul was traded in 2011, during his prime, after the franchise failed to advance past the conference semifinals with him. Davis has been to the playoffs just twice in seven seasons, and now he wants out.
It’s amazing that the basketball gods keep delivering potential saviors, but New Orleans needs to do more with them. Paul arrived in 2005, right after the organization had lost the momentum of the playoff team it inherited from Charlotte. Then Davis arrived in the draft after Paul was dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers. New Orleans won the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft lottery just a month after late owner Tom Benson had agreed to buy the team, which was struggling and under temporary league ownership. On Tuesday, with Davis seemingly on the way out, the Pelicans had a 6 percent chance to win the Zion lottery, and they ended the night dancing.
A conspiracy theorist would accuse the NBA of going out of its way to try to make basketball work in New Orleans. But that’s rather petty. New York Knicks fans can cry all they want. Williamson isn’t going to a big market. It’s probably better for him because he will need time to adjust to the NBA game, and his hype is already out of control.
New Orleans will allow him the opportunity to have a more comfortable transition. Will he do that as a complementary superstar understudy to Davis? Or will the Pelicans have to trade Davis and immediately start building around Williamson? It would be best for the franchise to add Williamson to Davis and Jrue Holiday. That is definitely the start of a dangerous playoff team. But perhaps it’s better in the long run to be forced into creating a team that can grow with the 18-year-old prodigy.
Griffin is the kind of basketball mind who could put together something interesting. Coach Alvin Gentry deserves such an opportunity, too, especially after the work he did in keeping the team focused amid the circus of Davis’s trade request. Griffin and Gentry have the most exciting experiment in recent NBA history. They need to do their best work.
During the NCAA tournament, a reporter wanted to know whether the distinguished jaw of Krzyzewski ever hit the hardwood when the coach watched Williamson. The reporter began the question with the phrase “when you have a player like Zion,” and the wording prompted the 72-year-old to stop him right there to make one thing abundantly clear: There’s only one Zion. And all the basketball rims in the world should be grateful for that.
“I don’t have another player like Zion,” Krzyzewski said. “If I did, both of them would start, and we’d be really, really good.”
Coach K, who has won five national titles and guided Team USA to three Olympic gold medals as a head coach, learned to compartmentalize greatness long ago. He has seen so many special ones, but even for him, Williamson was unique. He reveled at the opportunity to tinker with his skill set.
“As he progresses, how can we not put a ceiling on him?” Krzyzewski said. “You keep learning about a player, and that’s how I like to coach is to keep adjusting.”
At Duke, Williamson entered as a social media sensation and expected NBA lottery pick known for his dunking. He left as the overwhelming presumptive No. 1 pick and a player destined to sign a $100 million shoe contract soon.
“God gave him extraordinary ability but also extraordinary intelligence on how to use the ability and a work ethic to blend the two,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a magnificent athlete, and people just look at it as jumping. His lateral movement and his ability to move with speed and change directions is phenomenal. . . . He probably gets fouled a hell of a lot more than they’re called. In fact, I know he does, because he’s able to finish.
“He’s one-of-a-kind. He’s just one-of-a-kind, and he’s going to keep getting better.”
Naturally, Zion mania has skewed perspective and vaulted Williamson to a level of stardom that will be difficult for him to live up to. But over the past year, his game has grown so much. New Orleans has to keep Williamson on that path. If it can, he will become a game-changing player.
Williamson isn’t just a well-timed gift for a middling franchise. His impending arrival represents a tremendous responsibility, too. If New Orleans ever wants to thrive at this basketball thing, this is its best and most intriguing chance.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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