The highest level of NBA superstardom is occupied by players who are known by only their first names. Players like Wilt, Kareem, LeBron, Kobe, and Dirk have left their last names behind as they became legends. Before he even plays in his first summer league game, Zion Williamson is on track to that rare air.
Born in the internet age and raised in the era of social media, Zion is perfectly positioned to take the league by storm. The hype around him has reached a fever pitch. Can he live up to it, can he exceed it? Zion isn’t just the most highly anticipated rookie since LeBron James. He could be the most captivating basketball player ever.
Zion was more popular as a high school player than most NBA players are throughout their careers. Drake was wearing his jersey when he was only 16 years old. President Obama was coming out to see him when he was just a freshman at Duke. Lisa Fickenscher and Nicholas Vega of the New York Post reported that Zion has already sold more jerseys and t-shirts than the entire 2018 draft class combined, according to the sports licensing firm Fanatics. He’s coming into the league as a full-blown superstar and is going to a team that’s hungry for a new beginning.
The Pelicans are well positioned to fully maximize Zion’s abilities, both on the court and off. David Griffin and the rest of the front office commanded a king’s ransom when they traded Anthony Davis and they got it. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart all complement what Zion can do. Add in fellow draftees Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker and you have a real League Pass darling.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry wants his teams to run. The Pelicans finished the season 3rd in pace and 11th in fast break points per game. This new group is much better suited to that style of play. Zion’s athleticism is unparalleled, but he’s much more than just a lob threat. Throughout his time at Duke, he showed a knack for finding his teammates in the open court. This sequence against Kentucky is exactly what the Pelicans will be looking to replicate.
On offense, they should surround Zion with shooters and use him similar to how Milwaukee used Giannis this year. Just like the reigning MVP, Zion is equally comfortable as either the ball handler or screener in pick and roll. You can also feed him in the post and let him use his speed and athleticism to power around or over defenders. The possibilities are almost endless.
I think the Pelicans are going to be better than they’re getting credit for. They have assembled one of the most promising young groups in the league and they’re not done yet. They will go into free agency on July 1st armed with $30 million in cap space. The Pelicans team are one stretch big away from playoff contention. Luckily for them, there are quite a few available this summer.
If New Orleans is able to sign any of Nikola Vucevic, Al Horford, or Brook Lopez this summer they could very well make the playoffs. If you think the Zion hype is heavy now, imagine if he and the Pelicans sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed. That could put them up against the Lakers in the first round. The West is wide open and the Lakers will make a strong push to finish as the best team in the conference. A potential first-round series with Zion and the Pelicans would bring a whole new level of madness. The comparisons between LeBron and Zion and the history between Davis and the Pelicans organization would capture the attention of even the most casual observers.
The messy and drawn-out nature of Davis’s final months in New Orleans set the stage for Zion excite a largely apathetic fan base. The Pelicans have been the forgotten franchise in New Orleans for many years. They’ve never been able to draw the passionate fans that the Saints or LSU Tigers have. That could all change with Zion.
— Andrew Clay (@AndrewClayTV) June 22, 2019
After being spurned for Los Angeles by Davis, Pelicans fans are looking for a new star to embrace. Enter Zion, the most highly anticipated rookie of the past decade. He’s already received the seal of approval from Drew Brees. The passing of the torch from one New Orleans legend to the next is sure to endear Zion to the people of New Orleans. Fans at LSU football and Saints games are some of the most passionate in the country. Zion can help bring that same level of fandom to Pelicans basketball.
The buzz surrounding Zion has grown rapidly since he first went viral. His ascension from internet phenom to worldwide recognition would not be possible without social media. In 2003 when LeBron entered the league, Twitter and Instagram hadn’t been invented. People actually had to wait to see highlights of their favorite players on SportsCenter every night. Now, fully in the age of social media and constant connection, Zion’s highlights can be on the devices of millions, moments after they happen. His marketability and influence can be unlike that of any basketball player before him.
Zion is ready for what’s coming. In interviews, he is calm and poised. He answers questions like a seasoned veteran and has a likable nature to him that makes him almost impossible to root against. Few teenagers would be able to handle the pressure and attention that Zion has had to endure. But he seems comfortable in the spotlight. He’s very well aware of the unique situation he has in front of him.
In an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Zion opened up about a creative writing class that he took in high school. In particular, he touched on how the creative outlet that poetry provided helped him come to terms with his unavoidable superstardom.
“I wrote a poem about the reality of the situation that I’m in. I am no longer a teenager that can go make a teenage mistake. If I make a mistake I have little kids that look up to me and it’s going to have an effect, it’s not so easy.”
Everything about Zion’s situation is only going to fuel the hype surrounding him. This Pelicans team is tailor-made for his talents. The fast-paced style of basketball they will play will generate highlights that will travel across the internet like wildfire. He sits atop a potentially rabid fan base. And at the center of it all is Zion, an engaging and approachable young man whose life has been building to this moment.
Can Zion exceed the hype? Absolutely. His combination of skill and personality, amplified through the megaphone of social media, will not only help him exceed expectations. It can make him the most popular basketball player in the history of the game.