Zion Williamson is the NBA’s most polarizing talent

Zion Williamson is the NBA’s most polarizing talent

Zion Williamson is a series of contradictions. He’s a near-300-pound space mover who elevates like he’s in zero-gravity. He’s both the mythic John Henry racing a machine and the steam-powered drill he beat in a race because it continuously broke down. Williamson has the build of a defensive end, but his body has put him on a pitch count through his first four seasons. Williamson is the NBA’s ultimate high-risk, high-reward under-25 superstar, and the range of possibilities for his season are more than the width of his biceps. It would be reductive to label him as simply having potential, because he’s already demonstrated his effectiveness.

There is no player with a wider range of outcomes for this season than Williamson. Victor Wembanyama isn’t being relied upon to lead San Antonio to a postseason berth as a rookie. Trae Young’s universally respected, but he’s also got a lower ceiling.

Brooklyn’s future doesn’t hinge on Ben Simmons’ return to form. He’s an accessory. Zion is the all-important getaway driver.

Williamson won’t give you ho-hum when active. He could stay healthy and spearhead one of the West’s sneaky, brilliant teams. The Pelicans are arguably one trade and a healthy Williamson away from challenging Denver out West. Or he could suffer another injury midseason and the Pelicans could limp through the play-in tournament, advance to the first round and put forth a valiant effort, ultimately get bounced by the 1-seed in a seven-game series, and then David Griffin decides to ship him off for a more reliable superstar. The greatest ability is availability and he’s been lacking in that area.

ESPN’s annual NBA rankings reflect that volatility. Zion Williamson was ranked 57th on their 2023 list between (58) Jerami Grant, (56) Fred VanVleet, and (55) Draymond Green.

The Ringer was a bit more generous this summer, ranking Williamson as the 30th-best player behind Pascal Siakam, Jalen Brunson, Lauri Markkanen, and his own teammate Brandon Ingram. To his credit, they rank him above Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyrese Haliburton. Only one of those names has exhibited the capacity to be the best player on a championship team.

Andy Bailey of Bleacher Report averaged the Top 100 from eight sites and found Williamson’s consensus ranking to be 32nd, making ESPN’s grade look like an outlier, but that’s still surprisingly low for a big who could be a top-10 player if he was contributing for 75 percent of the season. It wasn’t that long ago when Williamson was a rung below Wembanyama on the generational-prospect hype tier. And after missing half of his rookie season, he surpassed expectations. We forget that he stormed out of the gates looking like a seasoned vet and improved on them in the two years since. Yet, how many 22-year-old cornerstones have been named to multiple All-Star teams, and were the subject of trade rumors in the offseason?

One of the biggest misnomers is that he’s rarely in basketball shape, but in consecutive years, he’s been lauded for transforming his body for the start of the season. Which is it? How has he transformed his body when he was just given credit for being in the best shape of his career a year earlier? The work ethic is there.

This summer Williamson told Gilbert Arenas he was adjusting his preparation to focus more on flexibility than simply losing weight.

“It’s more of locking in on flexibility, band work,” Williamson said on Arenas’ podcast. “I think it’s those things that will be able to keep me on the court longer rather than losing a bunch of weight and coming to play.”

Williamson is the most unstoppable downfield runner in sports, Derrick Henry included. His decision-making on the floor is superb. He’s nearly as efficient as the two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo when slashing, finishing and generating buckets in the paint. Williamson’s .615 effective field goal percentage would have ranked 12th in the league ahead of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. At New Year’s, the Pelicans were the second-best team in the West riding Williamson as their primary scorer, and offensive fulcrum, logging 26 points, seven boards, and nearly four dimes a game. He could stand to improve his proficiency shooting from beyond the arc, but he plies trade in driving lanes, and in the space of the rim.

He’s strong enough to play small ball center and agile enough to create space on the wing. He’s quietly a two-time All-Star. As I wrote back in July, giving up on him now would be as asinine as an alternate history where the Sixers dumped an injury-prone Joel Embiid or Golden State cutting bait with Steph Curry after he underwent ankle surgery for the final time.

After an offseason in which his reputation was sullied by his own messy actions and his relationship with the organization was questioned, this season feels like a garden of forking paths. After a litany of stops and starts, the rubber’s got to hit the road.

Follow DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.