Duke Basketball: Did Zion Williamson somehow exceed the hype with New Orleans?

While it almost seemed impossible to do, former Duke Basketball forward Zion Williamson finally made his debut and actually exceeded the unrealistic amount of expectations that weighed on his massive shoulders. It wasn’t all perfect, but there were three minutes of brilliance that couldn’t have been any better.

It was getting late.  The wife and kids were already in bed.  My house was quiet and still as I sat down on the couch with my laptop.  I made sure I had taken a little nap beforehand because I didn’t want to compromise my viewing of former Duke Basketball player Zion Williamson’s first NBA game by nodding off and knocking the computer onto the floor.  The cracked body and duct tape sandwiching the left side of the screen together was proof of this being more than just a hypothetical.  It is a man cave computer and treated as such, with its best feature being that it is not completely broken.

After all the family responsibilities, I was finally able to watch the re-air of the Pelicans-Spurs game without distraction.  It’s amazing the amount of distraction that transpires with four kids under ten running around.  Amazing isn’t really the word I would use, but I’ll keep the prerogative ones to myself, muttered in quiet but exasperated breaths.

I have learned that if I really want to watch a game and not just get the gist of it, I should never, ever attempt to view one in their full, four kid strong presence.  While Zion exceeded my expectations, I know from vast experience that my children, in this regard, would not.

I like the NBA, but as a college basketball fan first and foremost, I root for players more than teams.  Since I’m an unabashed Duke fan, I generally like the teams that employ players from there.  Naturally, the Pelicans are a good fit this year with five former Duke Blue Devils on the roster, including the most charismatic of them all in Zion Williamson.

I’ve seen all his games at Duke and seen the highlights even more.  You almost can’t help but like him, I would think anyway, with his magnetic smile and humble attitude.  Zion’s joy seems entirely genuine and that’s what really draws people in.  Sure he’s an athletic marvel who wows us with his grace and quickness of movement, especially for being a man so big; but Zion also seems like a guy who would say hi to you on the street and we find that refreshing and charming in a professional athlete.

Zion may be one of the easiest professional sports stars to root for, besides playing for my favorite team, so I was excited and expectant to see what he could do.  The excitement turned to skepticism and then to concern.   I thought he looked awful.

When I first saw him go up and down the court, I thought he looked tentative.  Not tentative in playing, but just jogging up the court.  I began to wonder about what kind of new stride they were teaching him and if this is it, maybe they should just go back to the original.  After all, the national player of the year and consensus number one draft pick running style seemed to do Zion just fine.  I also started to think that the one leg wrapped in white spandex was playing tricks on my eyes, making his gait look like there was a hitch to it.

He was just kind of floating around, not trying to mix it up for rebounds or getting too involved in any plays.  Zion also looked huge, which you really couldn’t blame him for, but the overall impression during that first four-minute burst was less than promising.  He had that nice assist to Ingram in the lane but this was hardly worth the hundred and forty extra press passes that were issued to capture this moment.

Zion’s second burst of game time wasn’t much better.  He did grab some rebounds, had a put-back and a nice take off the defensive glass which he turned up court, drove into the lane attracting three defenders, and kicked it out for an open three, which was missed.  So were the fireworks that everyone was hoping for as halftime came with more questions than answers, although I’m sure that easing back in without trying to alienate any teammates was a big part of it.

The start of the third brought the realization that this would be a slow process, oh how that word and the NBA love each other.  The end of his three and a half minutes of game time in that quarter did nothing to change my mind either.  Zion had that one gather and layup on the feed from Hayes, but he also had a couple of ugly turnovers.  One looked like he just dribbled it off his legs.

It’s okay.  I’ve seen Zion for a season at Duke.  I know what he is capable of and will be again…in time.  It’s unrealistic to think the magic started at Duke and crafted during summer league could continue after such an extended break and the uncertainty surrounding his return.  We also had the news about how Zion is changing strides and how he may still be growing.  They created an air of mystery and suspense that so often becomes anti-climatic and disappointing; which it still was in a way, though not of Zion’s fault to be sure.

He’ll have his time in the lights for what he does on the court.  It’ll just be in some other game on some other night.  It’s just good seeing him out there as he missed on a spin move to the hoop and had another turnover in the opening minutes of the fourth.

Then the clock hit 9:27 to go and it was like a Cinderella moment, but instead of everything going to —-, insert blank as you see fit, he turned into the biggest, baddest princess you ever saw.  Zion skyed from behind Poertl and snatched a rebound he had no business getting and burst up court.  He reached the top of the arc and fired a pass into space that Etwuan Moore caught up with and converted into a lay-in.

It’s Alive!  It’s Alive!, is what I was thinking as I could see the crowd roaring life into the basketball monster that is Zion Williamson.  But that’s where he really got us.  We all have seen the highlight dunks and blocks and extraordinary feats of athletic prowess that he displays.  Other than that rebound and run and the hanging layup over Derozan; Zion wowed us, he shocked and awed us, with qualities we never knew he had.

Yeah we knew Zion had the poise, heart and talent, but the shooting; and more importantly, the calm and control over the biggest moment of his life, from an outside perspective anyway, in front of the whole world, well maybe not China, with millions of dollars to be made, and downright  owning it with a jaw-dropping dunk nowhere in sight:

8:54 = BAM!  Step back three from the top of the arc.  Wow, nice shot but it’s only one.  Let’s see what happens.  Then, a bit later, the hovering off-balance layup over Demar happened and:

7:55 = BAM!  Zion drills the walk up three.  I actually let out an audible snort of surprise and excitement.  I could feel it through my cracked and dirty computer screen as I could only imagine what the crowd felt at the time.  It’s happening.  It was hilarious watching Nicolo Melli walk up to the scorer’s table and walk right back.  Zion scores another basket after he gets up lightning quick on the second jump to put back his own miss.  There’s no denying what’s going on now, but It only gets better:

6:59 = BAM!   Zion measures up the three on the assist from Ball.   At this point, I’m shaking my head in disbelief as the snort grew louder and more incredulous because I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I perk up and hunch over with my hands wrung, elbows on my knees.  My eyes are wide and glued to the screen and I’m smiling.  A lot.  Three for three on threes?  Whoa.

6:19 = BAM!  Zion comes out from the post, coolly jab steps Aldridge and drills another one.  Another three.  Four for Four.  Holy—-, again fill in the blank as you see fit.  Again, a big man trudges back to the bench but this time it’s Derrick Favors.  Again, I let out a gasp and snort mixed together that was unexpectedly loud enough that I heard a bang and thump come immediately from one of the bedrooms downstairs.

When Zion is fouled with 5:44 left, I see Favors going back to the table and I know the show is coming to an end.  He’s not leaving this time.  Zion takes a huge breath before stepping up and missing the first free throw.  That breath looked and felt like it was taken for all of us.  It let us all pause and know a miss had to come because we all finally realized that this kind of stuff shouldn’t happen.  This kind of stuff doesn’t happen.  Or at least it didn’t before now.  Before three incredible minutes that couldn’t have gone any better…except if they were extended by the Pelicans medical staff so New Orleans could have possibly won the game.  But judging by what we all saw on Zion’s debut, I’m sure he’ll get the chance to do just that, in time, and find new ways to blow all of our expectations out of that murky Mississippi water.

Even if no one ever reads or likes this, it was fun to write because it was so easy and forthcoming and I could feel a little bit of that tingle recalling what I witnessed.  It is my true experience as a fan and something I wanted to write about regardless of views or likes.  I’m glad I have a platform to express myself because it’s nights like that which makes us all fans and love sports because we know moments of pure joy and inexplicable magic, however temporary or fleeting, can really happen. Thanks.