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Zion Williamson’s Preseason Debut Was Highlight Heaven

The rookie still has a long way to go if he wants to be a versatile star at the pro level, but he’s already the NBA’s best at producing viral moments

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I have always been fascinated by avalanche videos. OK, stay with me. You know the ones I’m talking about—those where a snowboarder the size of an ant is sliding down a mountain trying to outrun literal tons of snow barreling down on him at breakneck speed. I always wonder whether and how they get away because I can’t imagine how helpless I’d feel in that same position. I can only imagine that’s a little how bit Damian Jones felt on Monday night, and how every other NBA player will feel this season, when he tried to get in the way of basketball’s newest, holiest union: Zion Williamson and the rim.

It took less than two minutes for Zion to throw down a rim-rattling dunk in his preseason debut against the Hawks on Monday night. If you watch the play closely, you’ll see how it was practically set up for him to do just that. As soon as he crosses half court, Zion tilts his body downward as if getting ready to take off on a 100-meter sprint, then he revs up and takes the dribble toss from Jrue Holiday well behind the 3-point line, and gets to the rim in just two mammoth steps. Jones has no chance to do anything but raise a hand and watch. In the screenshot of the dunk, it literally looks like he’s worshipping Zion. But Jones can hang his hat on this: He will be far from the last player to be put on one of Williamson’s posters.

In 28 minutes of play Monday, Zion debuted with 16 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals, and a plus-18, the second-best plus-minus on New Orleans. But the numbers aren’t the reason Zion had everybody’s attention.

Zion teased us with this kind of display at summer league, when he had a handful of highlights before and during the only game he played in Vegas. He did plenty of this at Duke, too. But to see it on the cusp of his first NBA season, against an actual NBA team, makes it feel so much more real.

But somewhere in the middle of the gawk-worthy plays (even his rebounds can leave you breathless) there were a couple of cover-your-eyes moments, too. He clunked two 3-pointers, missed three of his first four free throws badly (his form is slightly alarming), and turned the ball over four times, including twice when he tried to handle the ball as a point guard in transition. But nobody is talking about that. In fact, I feel dirty even bringing it up.

This is a player whose whole appeal can be measured by the views on his viral highlights and whose bread and butter also happens to be the most visually appealing part of game. Half of Zion’s points on Monday night came from dunks, and that will probably continue to be the case throughout the season. Whether it’s through the pick-and-roll with Lonzo Ball or Holiday or by simply being the trailer with a head of steam and a clear runway during a Pelicans fast break, Zion may dunk his way to Rookie of the Year. Heck, the popular basketball highlights YouTube account FreeDawkins had already cut a video of all his best clips by halftime:

For as much as we have propped up Zion as the next transcendent prospect in the same lineage as LeBron James, we’re still a ways away from seeing that dream come to fruition; Williamson has a lot that he needs to add to his game to become the ideal NBA player. Real backlash, though, may not come for a while—or if he’s anything like Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won an MVP in spite of his questionable outside shooting, there may be no backlash to speak of and we’ll all just consider him one of the best players in the game. Still, this is clearly the beginning of Zion’s NBA honeymoon phase, and even though he’ll eventually need polishing to become league royalty, for now, you can bet he’s ready to be our highlight king.