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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: Zion Arrives in the Fourth Quarter

Looking back at the time in 2019-20 when the rookie phenom’s debut went from bust to boom in a matter of minutes

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

I miss basketball. I miss it more today than any other day since the NBA regular season got suspended nearly two weeks ago. On Tuesday night, the Pelicans and Grizzlies were supposed to play. Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant. A battle for the playoffs between the league’s two best rookies leading two of the league’s best young teams. What a shame we won’t get to see it. New Orleans trailed Memphis for eighth place in the West by only 3.5 games when play was postponed, and it would have had only one team (Philadelphia) with a record over .500 left on the schedule at this point. Memphis would have had to finish strong to hold off New Orleans and the three other teams lurking. What a shame we won’t get to watch that Western Conference playoff race. Sigh.

When our staff was notified about this Defining Moments series, my mind went straight to the fourth quarter of Zion’s debut. Do you remember it? I know, it feels like it happened an eternity ago. But it was actually only two months ago, on January 22, during a nationally televised game against the Spurs. Playing on a minutes restriction, Zion appeared for less than five minutes in each of the first three quarters. Mark Jackson fat-shamed him in the first quarter, and skeptics on Twitter started getting louder as Zion totaled only five points, four rebounds, four turnovers, and one assist while playing some heavy-footed defense. Then the fourth quarter began and Zion put on a show, scoring 17 straight points to bring the Pelicans back into the game and send the crowd into a frenzy.

I’ll always remember the sound of the crowd. Every time Zion made a shot, the fans got louder and louder, crescendoing as his fourth made 3 splashed through the net. It was all as shocking as it was thrilling. Williamson was rightfully dubbed a shaky shooter coming into the NBA, yet here he was unleashing a barrage of 3s? It made no sense. It still doesn’t—he made twice as many 3s in that quarter as he has the rest of the season. Between his 3s, he was bruising defenders, which is what you’d expect. He discarded DeMar DeRozan and sank a lob on a pass from Lonzo Ball. And he finished his own missed basket by leaping twice before Spurs center Jakob Poeltl could even turn his body once to find the ball.

Zion was more than anyone could have hoped for. Fans had to find a way to witness him, even if they didn’t watch live. The NBA’s YouTube upload of Zion’s fourth quarter has logged 3.6 million views, making it the fourth-most-viewed video uploaded this season to the channel. The only videos that had more views are the Lakers’ tribute to Kobe Bryant (11.2 million), the top 100 plays of the decade (5.8 million views), and highlights from Lakers-Clippers in March (3.9 million). No other single-game player highlight video cracked 3 million.

Part of Zion’s appeal is the mystery. Because knee surgery cost him the first three months of the season, we still haven’t seen that much of him compared to other rising stars like Ja, Luka Doncic, and Trae Young. Williamson shined in the fourth against the Spurs, but then, as a result of his minutes limit, he was gone with 5:23 remaining. The Pelicans trailed by three points and ended up losing.

In a way, Zion’s debut is a microcosm of his past year. In college, he had an extraordinary season leading up to Duke’s rivalry matchup against North Carolina. With former president Barack Obama sitting courtside, Zion’s shoe exploded only 30 seconds into the game and he missed nearly one month with a knee injury. After nine minutes of superstar flashes in Las Vegas, a knee-to-knee collision kept him sidelined for the remainder of summer league. A historically dominant preseason was ended by knee surgery to repair his meniscus. In his first game, he got pulled to manage his minutes. After 19 Shaq-like regular-season games, the season got suspended due to the spread of the coronavirus. We’ve gotten only a taste of what Zion can do.

Who knows when we’ll see Williamson again—not even the NBA knows when games will be played again. But no matter when that time comes, I’m going to enjoy every moment he’s here. It’s hard to worry about a player’s future when the present is so intoxicating. If only Zion were playing on Tuesday.