The best player on every road team typically sets up shop in the corner stall inside the Staples Center visiting locker room. It’s where Damian Lillard dresses, where Chris Paul ices his knees, and where Luka Doncic answers questions. In early January, the last time the Pelicans were in Los Angeles, Brandon Ingram was sitting in that seat, but on Tuesday night that’s where Zion Williamson sat. In the corner, he put on his white socks and adjusted his ankle tape while three cameras hovered above his Beats-adorned head. A few minutes later, he confessed something to teammate Darius Miller, who was sitting nearby: TNT had asked him whether he wanted to be mic’d up for the much-hyped match between the Lakers and Pelicans, but he had said no.
“I have no idea what I’m talking about on the court,” he said with a laugh as Miller teased him about it. This is Zion’s NBA reality: Even if his career is still nascent, the star treatment is already part of his day-to-day experience. And on Tuesday in Los Angeles, where the lights seem to shine brighter, the attention that usually revolves around LeBron James turned to the 19-year-old Zion.
Even though Zion lived up to expectations with his play, putting up 29 points in 33 minutes—his 11th game of 20 points or more—he didn’t seem interested in stepping into the role of a starstruck young player ready to be the next LeBron-like prodigy.
“He’s not about the hype or anything like that, but when you’re a once-in-a-generation-type player like he is, that comes with the territory,” teammate Josh Hart said. “I think he handles it as best as anyone could.”
At shootaround Tuesday morning, when asked about the feeling of going up against LeBron, Zion lowered his head, paced from side to side, gave a sheepish smile, and said he would like to answer questions about what LeBron “and all those other great players” meant to him growing up after the game.
During the pregame, everyone had shuffled onto the court with their cameras and phones to watch him put on a show. The session ended up being a short one, featuring only one dunk, and was bookended by his watching film on the bench before signing a handful of jerseys for fans.
“It’s absolutely crazy, really, where every hotel, every restaurant, everything that we do, there are just a ton of people there that just want to see him,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “It’s been that way from day one.”
Derrick Favors first discovered Zion Williamson much like the rest of us—by seeing an Instagram video of him dunking.
“My little brother had told me about him,” Favors told me. “I saw the clip and went, ‘Damn, that’s crazy.’” But back then, even Favors had his doubts. He marveled at the videos, but filed them away as just more ephemeral highlights. “You get so used to seeing that kind of stuff, especially on social media,” he said.
A lot has changed since then, and Favors now has a front-row seat to watching Zion go from Instagram sensation and college superstar to having the eyes of the entire league following his every move after just 13 games. It’s not unlike the rise LeBron experienced—on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high-schooler, bypassing college, and hitting the NBA by storm with a knapsack of expectations already slung around his broad shoulders. There is no certainty that Zion will exceed expectations like LeBron did, but his career’s rocket-like liftoff and his ability to impact winning already portends future greatness. The Pelicans are quick to praise everything from the way he has fit into a free-flowing offense so quickly to his otherworldly efficiency, to his rebounding, to, of course, his unique athletic abilities.
“There’s a few players in my career where you feel like you’re watching them or you’re playing with them and you feel like, ‘Man, this guy, it’s not his night,’” JJ Redick said. “And you look up and he’s got 27 and 8, with 5 assists and 2 blocks. Like, what just happened? He’s just one of those guys.”
The Pelicans are enjoying the dividends Zion earned through all the work he put in while rehabbing from the knee surgery that cost him more than half his rookie season. The long layoff made his return to the court that much more anticipated, which has made his production that much more appreciated.
“Everybody’s seen the YouTube highlights, everybody knows the hype, so I kind of think it’s energized the fan base, it’s energized everybody,” Favors said.
NBA stardom has come quickly for Zion, but he’s not really the type to bask in his own fame.
“These things are tough—having to stand here every day, and you guys ask him all these questions about him personally,” Gentry said. “That’s really not who he is. … It’s never about him, he never wants it to be about him.”
Zion sounds like he’s been a chemistry plus and a necessary piece on the court for a team that started the season 6-22 but is now in the playoff hunt. The eye test backs up the change in the win column, as it’s impossible to watch Zion play and not feel drawn to him on every possession. Every time he steps on the court, he envelops it—his style of play makes him stand out like a highlighter in a world of black and white.
Once the game began Tuesday night, his desire to win and his breathtaking ability was clear—as it’s been more than once since he debuted. Every time he dunked, and especially when he left Markieff Morris frozen as he leapt for a perfect alley-oop, the Lakers fans reflexively “ooh’d” like it didn’t matter what colors Zion was wearing. Every one of the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder’s highlight-worthy movements seemed to happen in the blink of an eye, like a tank moving at the speed of a race car.
Lonzo & Zion ikilisinin alley-oop’u ✈️ pic.twitter.com/EghF9Bd5PD— Clutch Time #24 (@ClutchPage) February 26, 2020
“He’s a physical specimen,” Favors said. “It’s a joy to watch him.”
For all the attention he’s already earned, Zion is still learning, adjusting to rotations and lineups, and asking questions whenever he can. But even at such a premature basketball age, his mere presence is sometimes more than enough.
“Just being able to build energy with dunks and all the things that he does,” Jrue Holiday said. “He’s someone you always have to have a body on because if not, he’s going to do whatever he wants.”
Zion is aware of this, and you can see it in the fearlessness he has when driving to the rim no matter who is in the way. Sure, Tuesday’s 118-109 loss did provide a few “welcome to the league” moments, like when he was blocked by Anthony Davis at the rim. But for every half-baked offensive possession, there was a powerful drive that resulted in an and-1, a rebound over Dwight Howard that showed off his leaping abilities, a defensive possession where he stonewalled Davis, and a slew of other times when he deterred shots and passes by simply being active, a sight to behold nearly as captivating as his dunks.
“I guess to me it didn’t really seem like he cared,” said Holiday, when asked about Zion dealing with the big stage. “He went out there and went at them, no matter who it was, LeBron, AD, Dwight, JaVale [McGee], it didn’t matter.” At shootaround, Holiday had recalled how, when he was a teenage rookie in the league, he was scared to face someone like Shaquille O’Neal. With Zion, though, he sensed no apprehension. After getting a handful of questions about playing against LeBron postgame, when he said he would answer them, Zion downplayed his own performance because of the loss, and said “come on, man” with an exasperated laugh when asked whether it was surreal to share the court with LeBron.
“I mean he’s an incredible player, I don’t know what you’re all not understanding about that,” Zion said. “He handled business and did what he had to do to get the win.”
LeBron’s winning performance, which included a season-high 40 points, allowed him to sit on the bench (and eat a Red Vine) with less than a minute left in the game. There, he watched Zion step up to the free throw line, shake his head with frustration, and miss two shots. The second one was his 19th free throw attempt of the night, a total that only one other 19-year-old has notched in NBA history: LeBron. Once the buzzer sounded, Zion and LeBron went their separate ways without saying a word to each other. They’ll meet again in New Orleans in five days, and the questions, comparisons, and narratives will start back up. But on Tuesday, each agenda was made clear: LeBron is still not ready to pass the torch. Zion, though, is already trying to take it.