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Zion vs. Luka Is a Glimpse at the Future of the NBA

Williamson and Doncic face off for the first time Wednesday night. The two are polar opposites on the court—but share a status as uniquely dominant players who should define the league for years to come.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Zion Williamson and Luka Doncic will face each other for the first time on Wednesday. I thought there’d be more anticipation. With the way we’ve waited for Zion—from the highlight mixtapes out of Spartanburg Day School, through his lone season at Duke, and the 93 days and 93 nights it took him to recover from knee surgery and play his first game in the NBA—every first should be memorialized with the care and attention of a baby scrapbook entry. Zion’s first points: January 22, 2020. Zion’s first MVP chants: January 22, 2020. Zion’s first game against Luka: March 4, 2020.

There’s no rivalry between Zion and Luka. Not yet, anyway. There’s no bad blood promo to show on ESPN, no stats from a previous time the two played, no draft year or positional matchup to tie the two together. There’s no “Zion vs. Luka” the same way there’s “Zion vs. LeBron,” a.k.a. the “next” LeBron vs. the real thing, or “Luka vs. Trae,” two guards forever tethered by a draft-day trade. But there is one tantalizing through line between the two: the absolute certainty that they’re the future of this league.

But calling Luka and Zion the “future” doesn’t acknowledge what they’re accomplishing now at 21 and 19. They’re superstars, franchise saviors, top-tier highlight manufacturers. Both share a nearly perfect fan approval rating—nearly, if it weren’t for a handful of monogamous Hawks fans, the city of Sacramento on the anniversary of the 2018 draft, or Mark Jackson, who can’t seem to get past Zion’s weight.

Neither player will be loved by all forever, of course. Either you play long enough to win a championship, which means pleasing one fan base and alienating the other 29, or you don’t win anything. That’s much worse. Eventually, you’ll be doubted, hated, Harden-ed, etc. But for right now, they’re perfect by way of inexperience.

They’re also, oddly enough, almost too unlike to compare. Guard vs. big; foreign-taught vs All-American; unremarkable athleticism vs. a 45-inch vertical. They dominate the game in different ways. Luka will ruin you silently, with delicate floaters, faraway 3s, crisp crosscourt passes, and poise. Zion prefers power. His typical highlights—clips of him backing down defenders in the post and beating three or five or 15 men for a rebound—don’t show his vision or his proficiency on the ball, which are skills he’s precisely four times too large to have in his arsenal.

Both are celebrated for doing fantastical things with bodies that shouldn’t allow it. Luka is soft—not quite chubby, at 230 pounds, but certainly not ripped. Not zippy, either, though he’s found unstoppable ways to beat defenders by maneuvering his weight around. Zion is chunky—284 pounds. He’s tied for the third-heaviest player in the NBA, behind Boban Marjanovic and Tacko Fall, who are each nearly a full foot taller than Zion. Somehow, Zion gathers all that mass and propels upward like the court is a trampoline. (I mentioned earlier that Zion’s vertical at Duke was 45 inches. Zach LaVine, dunk contest winner and general airbender, maxed out at 46 inches at a Lakers workout in 2014.)

“He’s a monster,” Luka said about Zion in February. “He’s not from this world.” It’s how many people paint Zion: as a physical specimen so exceptional that he must be otherworldly. Meanwhile, Luka wows us because he’s managed to succeed despite so obviously being from this world. Neither’s play entirely matches his body—they both defeat convention.

One of my favorite things to do with young players is to picture their future selves in the current NBA hierarchy. Who will be the next LeBron, the next James Harden, the next Steph Curry? Another similarity between Luka and Zion is that they don’t fit easily into future roles. They’re incomparable, but that doesn’t mean what’s ahead for them is a mystery. There’s a decent chance that a future MVP will be playing in Dallas on Wednesday night. Maybe two of them. And that’s not just me pushing a narrative.