I’m not a religious man, but I spent most of Tuesday’s showdown between the Pelicans and the Lakers praying Zion Williamson and LeBron James would challenge each other at the rim. For two quarters, the titans danced around each other, striking blows by proxy. One would slide through defenders for an easy bucket, only for the other to then charge at the opposing rim for the same result. Early in the third quarter, they came closer to intersecting, when James knocked down a triple over Williamson’s outstretched hand. A few minutes after that, James managed to strip Zion on a fast-break try.
But the true highlight—a poster, or poster denied—never came, and Los Angeles held on for a 118-109 victory. Both James and Williamson were supported by strong performances from their second bananas; former Laker Brandon Ingram dropped 34 on his old team, and Anthony Davis, the man Ingram and a cabal of fledgling contributors were traded for, shook off a cold shooting night for 21 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. But while the supporting casts had their share of highlights—Alex Caruso threw a between-the-legs backward pass on a fast break—the contest revolved around two planetary masses facing off for the first time.
From the day Zion debuted leading into Tuesday’s matchup, the West-leading Lakers and the surging Pelicans had an identical net rating. The young Pelicans have played at the league’s second-fastest pace in that span, using their speed to put together one of the six most efficient offenses in the NBA. That New Orleans challenged Los Angeles all evening wasn’t an anomaly. It was expected. So too was Zion’s performance, keeping pace with James for most of the night.
ZO AND ZION PUTTING ON A SHOW pic.twitter.com/wCOd2u2ELh— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) February 26, 2020
On one end of the floor, Williamson rose high above the rim to throw down an alley-oop. On the other, James completed an acrobatic and-1. At the half, James had 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting and four rebounds in 18 minutes; Williamson had 17 on 6-of-10 shooting and four boards in 17.
The King finished shooting 17-for-27 for a season-high 40 points, and added eight rebounds and six dimes in 34 minutes. His young contemporary ended the night with 29 points, 8-of-18 from the field, with six rebounds and a handful of jaw-dropping highlights.
Zion with the crafty finish over Kuzma at the rim and the Pelicans take the lead! pic.twitter.com/1voiitt58v— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) February 26, 2020
Over the first 13 games of his career, James averaged 17.6 points and nearly seven rebounds as his Cavs went 4-9. In his first 13, Zion’s done even better, scoring 23.3 points per night with seven rebounds, and the Pelicans have gone 7-6. Even with their loss to the Lakers, the Pelicans sit just three and a half games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference, and per Tankathon, have the second-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. When Williamson finally graced the league with his presence, New Orleans was 10 games below .500, and the postseason seemed like a pipe dream. Now, the numbers suggest it’s likely. Zion entered the league with astronomical expectations, and his play has validated the hype bestowed upon him.
“The kid is special. We all know that,” James said of Zion after the win. “The kid is special, man. They got a good one.”
Williamson was only 3 years old when James debuted in 2003—a fact that would be more shocking if LeBron hadn’t spent the better part of the past few seasons shoving Father Time into a locker. At 35, James is the 10th-oldest player in the league, and is inarguably among its best. Last season, despite missing significant time to injury for the first time in his career, he completed one of his best statistical campaigns. Even now, in his 17th season, the only foe who can feasibly challenge him for the crown is Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP.
Fans never got a chance to see a teenaged LeBron face down Michael Jordan. James was born a few weeks after Jordan, already a champion in college, made his NBA debut. MJ retired the summer James was drafted and watched from afar as the man who’d soon challenge for his GOAT status decimated his former team as a rookie. It’s hyperbolic to suggest that James’s showdown with Williamson on Tuesday night will carry the same weight that Jordan-James crossing would have. James hasn’t given any indication he’s contemplating leaving the game—certainly not while he continues to play at this level—and Williamson, still just 13 games into his tenure, is just as likely to succumb to injury as he is to become James’s successor.
No player since LeBron, not even his teammate Anthony Davis, entered the league with as much “Next Big Thing” hype as Williamson—perhaps literally the biggest Next Big Thing since Shaquille O’Neal, another possible Zion comp. In college, he wasn’t just a future star; he was an event. Clips of him dominating collegiate foes were inescapable, and even when sitting with injury, his legend grew. Part of the majesty of Zion is in not knowing how high his ceiling might be. It’s been nearly a decade since the last player with the size of a jetliner and the agility of a motorbike plowed through the league. Now, Williamson seems poised to be the next.
James’s play defined most of the past two decades of professional basketball. Zion could define the next two. It’s too early to call Tuesday’s game a passing of the torch. But if Williamson continues to shine as he has thus far, it won’t be long until he carries the flame.