He’s not yet the King of Mardi Gras, but that will surely come.
Zion Williamson is the center of the NBA universe, not only in his new basketball home of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but for the time being, in the entire league. Being the most anticipated and heralded No. 1 draft pick since LeBron James will do that for you.
It’s funny how a few bouncing ping pong balls can change a city and a franchise, alter mega trade deals and cause a ripple effect on several team rosters. The NBA lottery and those fortuitous white balls set so many things in motion, not the least of which is putting an also-ran team like the New Orleans Pelicans on the path of basketball prosperity.
Zion is already referred to by just one name, like LeBron, K.D., Steph, A.D., Michael, Magic and Kareem. And that must be a prerequisite to greatness.
Many magnificent players with immense talents have come and gone through the NBA and into the Hall of Fame. But it seems we have never seen the combination of size, strength, speed, vertical leap, scoring, defense and zeal for the game possessed by this 19-year-old, 6-foot, 7-inch, 285-pound man-child.
Zion’s one-handed, jackhammer power dunks are legendary. But there is more to his game. There’d better be, because the NBA has scores of impressive dunkers in their midst.
What I think is so special about Zion is the intangibles between his ears and inside his heart.
He has a high IQ for the game after only one All American season at Duke. He can make all the plays, anticipate moves and execute the subtleties that win close games. Zion loves the game, plays hard every trip down the floor —he may have to temper that across an 82-game NBA season — and has a joy and passion that is not in the DNA of every pro player.
“Let’s dance” was his first reaction and message to New Orleans after realizing his dream of being the No. 1 pick.
Keep in the mind this is not New Orleans’ first high-profile, one-and-done top draft pick. In 2012, the then-New Orleans Hornets selected center Anthony Davis No. 1 out of Kentucky.
A.D. was the good soldier for most of his seven years spent toiling in near obscurity in the Crescent City, making the playoffs twice in that time, but winning only one playoff series. Davis was still recognized as one the NBA’s top talents and always came up as a centerpiece of big trade talks.
Davis would not have made All Star teams if he hadn’t played hard and well in New Orleans. He was the reluctant face of the franchise and didn’t seem to really embrace that role, the team’s organization or the city.
When word got out that he wanted and demanded a trade out of New Orleans back in February, Pelican fans turned on him and former GM Dell Demps, along with owner Gayle Benson, were not quick or receptive to making his wish come true on A.D.’s terms or timetable.
The Pelicans were smart. They waited until they had a top-notch executive in David Griffin in the front office. They waited until it was clear what assets were on the trade table for all teams interested in Davis. And the Pels sat back to let the ping pong balls decide the draft order.
Once all that was known, the Pelicans gave A.D. his wish and his trade to the L.A. Lakers for a Herschel Walker-type deal involving three Laker players and three first round draft picks, which included this year’s No. 4 overall pick.
The Pelicans got real young real fast and got really good to boot.
The key chess piece is Zion.
His best running mates will be veteran Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday and forward Julius Randle. Griffin was busy on draft night, adding three first round picks after trading that No. 4 to Atlanta. He may not be done yet, as the NBA’s free agent period begins in a matter of days.
Don’t be so naïve as to think the NBA was hoping for little New Orleans to secure the top draft pick and the rights to Zion. The league suits would have preferred those ping pong balls to favor the New York Knicks or Los Angeles Lakers.
But sometimes life and karma allow the bounces to go by way of the little guy underdog. And to make it even better, Zion appeared happy and content to be drafted by New Orleans, a city he had never visited until a few weeks ago on his first official peek, meet and greet.
Zion didn’t leak anything through his agents or on social media that hinted that he didn’t want to play for a small-market team such as New Orleans. There was no grimacing or raised eyebrows from him when the Pelicans got the top draft pick.
He welcomed the chance to play for the Pels and was sincerely excited to take the next step to the NBA.
Zion is a respectful, humble, well-mannered superstar — just what the Pelicans need in their current state.
“We could not have asked for a better player with more potential on the court,” said a very happy Benson. “More importantly, we could not have hoped for a better person to represent and help lead our franchise into this new chapter.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has a habit of coaching great basketball players, who enter and leave his venerable program with high character and values.
Zion’s new coach Alvin Gentry must feel he has won his own personal Powerball Lottery. “You don’t get to coach guys like this very often. When you’re lucky enough to have a generational player like that, you relish just the honor of being able to coach a guy like that,” Gentry said during Williamson’s post-draft trip to New Orleans.
The basketball bandwagon got rolling pretty quickly after Zion to New Orleans became a reality. A spike in season ticket sales, fan frenzy and street party celebrations ensued.
The inevitable comparisons came next.
Lists of who Zion best compares to were the hot side story surrounding the young man who had yet to shoot an NBA jump shot. Will Williamson be the second coming of Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp or Larry Johnson? Or when we see him matchup against his contemporary from the Lakers, will it be a preview of LeBron James Part II?
Some hold the opinion the NBA has not seen the combination of unique skills and athleticism in a 6-foot, 7-inch, 285-pound force of nature that is Zion. I wouldn’t go that far. He is a special talent, a unicorn of sorts. But don’t let the passing of time make you forget the amazing feats of Barkley, who was only 6 foot, 6 inches, over his long pro career.
I am willing to bet Williamson will at least match his stats at Duke in his first season with the Pelicans. Gentry will devise offensive schemes conducive to his new star’s strengths. And there are many that will allow him 22 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks per game.
I just hope Zion has Superman strong knees, ankles and hips, because with the force, power and impact he goes up and comes down with over 82-plus NBA games, he will need them.
He is the talk of New Orleans and the center of the fans’ attention and eagerness for a new hoops prodigy now that Davis has departed for the West Coast.
Dare I say Drew Brees might need to move over just a smidge to make room for the wonder kid — maybe for a few short weeks until the Saints open training camp and then open the season to chase down another Super Bowl bid.
New Orleans and Louisiana are football first. Everything else is a distant second.
Brees is still the true King. But an autographed framed jersey sent from the future Hall of Fame quarterback to Zion may mean No. 9 knows his reign and his seat on the city’s Iron Throne will end at some point.
The kind gift and message would be classic and classy Brees … “To Zion — Passing the torch to you! Who Dat!”
Let’s hope the hype is real and the young lion can carry the flame.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm on Suddenlink cable channel 4 and Saturday and Sunday on CBS Lake Charles/KSWL. Check local listings.