LeBron James had a courtside seat for Zion Williamson’s summer league debut at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Saturday night, and he was among the thousands of fans clamoring to witness the most highly anticipated NBA rookie, since, well, LeBron James. It was as though a basketball red carpet was rolled out in the desert to watch the New Orleans Pelicans and New York Knicks, with Anthony Davis, Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan, P.J. Tucker, Donovan Mitchell, and Trae Young in attendance—even Floyd Mayweather was there. For LeBron, watching this year’s no. 1 pick play for the Pelicans must have felt eerily familiar; the NBA’s past-and-present superstar was witnessing the league’s future transcendent star begin his career. Zion, a 6-foot-7, 285-pound phenom, resembles LeBron in athleticism and the hype surrounding him. Williamson played only nine minutes before leaving the game after a knee-to-knee collision, but he electrified the crowd every time he touched the ball, finishing with 11 points, three rebounds, and some gasp-inducing dunks.
The excitement in the arena disappeared, however, after tremors visibly shook the arena in the fourth quarter, the result of a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Southern California. Confusion and panic swept through the arena when the tremors were felt and after a lengthy delay, the game was called off. The arena’s Jumbotron speakers continued to sway minutes after the tremors stopped.
“We’re taking all the necessary precautions now to make sure the tournament can continue,” summer league executive director Warren LeGarie said in a postgame press conference. LeGarie said the game was called off, in part, because of the swaying scoreboard.
Before the earthquake, the focus of the night was entirely on the start of the Zion Era. The game was sold out even though it didn’t involve the Lakers, who played in the preceding game. The resale market was showing tickets selling in the lower bowl for $400, while general admission passes were being scalped for $80. As I walked to the arena before the game, a seller said the price was now $90.
Zion, who has yet to sign a sneaker endorsement deal, arrived wearing brand-new, unreleased Pumas, though he played in Nike Kyries. It was a footwear flex that he followed up with a physical one—a warm-up dunk that sent the crowd into delirium:
Pelicans’ Zion Williamson goes off the glass in Las Vegas Summer League debut pic.twitter.com/NFuOSGavYc— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) July 6, 2019
In the short time Zion spent on the court, he held the raucous crowd in the palm of his hand. Every leap elicited oohs and aahs; when he sat on the bench, the crowd chanted his name; when a referee called a foul to stop him from a likely fast-break dunk, they booed. And when he snatched the life and the ball from Knicks forward Kevin Knox and turned it into a powerful dunk, the whole place erupted.
There was always going to be a first highlight-reel moment, and it fell to Knox to be on the receiving end of the first in Williamson’s NBA career. Knox, who started the game by draining shots and even blocking Zion at one point, will be viralized in perpetuity for it. That’s how this works. Knox had a strong night overall (17 points on 12 shots), but Zion’s former Duke teammate R.J. Barrett, the Knicks’ no. 3 pick in this year’s draft, struggled while shooting 4-of-18 from the field. It’s a meaningless summer game, but against the backdrop of the hoopla surrounding Zion, Barrett’s night felt even more bleak for the Knicks, a reminder of what might have been had the lottery odds worked in their favor.
The only Knick that seemed to match Zion’s energy—and he had a surplus of it—was Mitchell Robinson. The team’s second-round pick in the 2018 draft continued to play above his pay grade by running toward the rim on nearly every shot, dunking, and going after blocks. But even though his game is predicated on athleticism, he couldn’t compete with Zion in that area, either. Even in a short shift, Zion played with the same kind of fervor he would have produced in an NCAA tournament game while he was at Duke. Every time he got the ball, he seemed to go at the rim as if there were no players in his way. On a fast break, he barreled right into Robinson like a tank (he drew three fouls and made three free throws on the night). It’s like he has no off switch for going all-out, not even one for summer league.
Halfway through the first quarter, Zion rose up for a block and smashed it toward the direction where LeBron was sitting. It was called a goaltend, but that didn’t stop everyone in attendance from reacting like it was clean. Soon after, LeBron headed out of the arena; he had seen enough.
We’ll remember Zion’s short summer league debut for the few highlight-reel moments–and the earthquake–instead of his missed 3-point attempt, or his airballed jumper. And his stint in Las Vegas will be short. During one play in the first quarter, Zion appeared to hit the knee of an opposing player and he was ruled out for the second half. We may not see Zion play again for the rest of summer, but why give away more of a good thing than you need to?