Think of the top scorers from last year’s regular season. Guys like Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid enter the conversation. They’re all, roughly, in their primes. Durant and Curry are 33 years old. Embiid is 27. Jokic is 26. Toss in 31-year-old Damian Lillard, 26-year-old Zach LaVine and 26-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo if you wish. The premise isn’t threatened.
Another name belongs among the game’s most prolific scorers, someone who does threaten the premise: 21-year-old Zion Williamson. As a sophomore, Zion averaged 27.0 points on 64.9 percent true shooting, despite insufficient spacing and guard creation around him. He’s my choice to be the first player in NBA history to register at least 30 points per game on 70 percent true shooting — benefitting in part from the league-wide boon in scoring efficiency, but also making waves because he’s freaking awesome.
Zion just dusted KP for the and-1. He’s so explosive and sudden in his moves pic.twitter.com/5G7nsHUch9
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) February 18, 2021
Forty-three players averaged at least 20 points last season. Only Durant (66.6 percent) and Curry (65.5 percent) posted better true shooting marks than Zion. Pretty esteemed company, I suppose. His career is barely off the ground and he’s already rivaling all-time greats as a scorer. That is rare. Do not brush it aside. Revel in it. Deprioritize your concerns of him.
And yet, so much of the discourse surrounding Zion seems to hyperfixate on who he isn’t or where he lacks. The fretting over his health and defensive warts strikes me as a counter to the swell of atypical hype he received as a prospect. As if the dude who was a top-20 player and All-NBA-caliber star at 20 years old is somehow falling short of expectations.
There’s no denying his defense is unsatisfactory. He improved for stretches last year, but he remains an inattentive weakside helper and frequently opens the floodgates in ball-screens, among other deficiencies. Set to miss at least a portion of 2021-22 with a right foot injury and having been sidelined for 48 games as a rookie, it’d obviously be ideal to see him play more.
Yet too often, I see those talking points dominate conversations involving Zion or constantly surface when he is complimented. He’s a budding elite offensive engine. When healthy, he’s going to spearhead one of the NBA’s most fearsome offenses this season. In an era where everyone wants to gravitate beyond the arc, he mauls his way to the rim 15 times per game, which is, at worst, as valuable and efficient a means of scoring as the three-ball — despite what people who misinterpret or misunderstand the message behind analytically inclined scoring profiles implore.
I also don’t deem the widespread criticism of his dietary and training regimens from people who aren’t privy to those habits as appropriate. Zion is not alone in such concerns either. Other superstars like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid have received similar vitriol or critiques about their physique and diets from people who are by no means in tune with those aspects of one’s life. It shouldn’t be confined to superstars either. Any athlete — any human — should be free of these developments.
Specifically for Zion, and beyond what I think is necessary to respect one’s humanity, there are just vastly more exciting aspects of his basketball stardom to discuss and enjoy than lasering in on his defense or your unfounded claims about his diet and training. Basketball is fun, and few players embody that better than Zion.
Zion is ridiculous. His ability to navigate tight spaces at his size is special pic.twitter.com/fDOwi4DSWZ
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 29, 2021
He’s growing as a passer. His finishing creativity is exquisite and he swiftly teleports through cramped windows of space like a slippery 6’1” guard, not the 6’6’, 285-pound bruiser he is. Watching him navigate the newfound rigors of primary initiation bred from his role shift early in the season was fascinating.
He reduces hulking centers akin to overqualified perimeter players around the basket and is routinely impervious to help defenders. His offensive motor is unrelenting. He had a 23-game stretch averaging 29-7-4-1-1 on 66 percent shooting last season, which, somehow, hardly deviates from his yearlong performance. Stupefying.
His personality is equally splendid as the on-court product. He is candid and refreshing, a contagious smile or chuckle always a word or moment away. He carries himself as though all of these experiences are fleeting and surreal. As though he has not earned them through his unbridled talent and work ethic. As though he remains unaccustomed to the fanfare and praise, and is mystified that it’s directed entirely his way.
He carries himself like he’s 21, because he is. And already, he is a superstar, one we must appreciate more, tone down the ire toward and worry less about his future when the present is unabashedly incredible for so many reasons.