By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
This is a story about Zion Williamson, who, in his second NBA season is making a habit of getting straight to the point (or straight to the rim). So, let’s do the same, with a few blunt statements off the bat.
He’s coming of age. He’s figuring the NBA out. He’s learning how to dominate. His style of play makes him better at creating an emotional reaction in his teammates than anyone else in the league.
And as the New Orleans Pelicans figure out how to use him best, he is turning the team into must-see viewing.
“Whatever I can do,” the 20-year-old said on Monday night, “to give my team energy.”
There are different ways to give a group energy, and some have a higher level of implied difficulty than others.
Williamson’s latest method was to take the defensive brick wall that goes by the name of Rudy Gobert and leave him powerless. Gobert doesn’t get pushed around in the paint. He doesn’t get bullied. He gives neither ground nor favor and his mere presence suggests, not so politely, that it might be worth looking for another spot on the floor to get your scoring going.
Oops, someone forgot to tell all that to Williamson.
On Monday night, fresh off being selected to his first All-Star Game, Williamson decided to take the combination of his surging confidence, the Pelicans’ new offensive system and a shot at an opponent with the league’s best record, and go for a spin.
The result? Dramatic.
The statistics say Williamson’s 26 points, 10 rebounds and five assists helped lead the Pelicans to a 129-124 victory over the Utah Jazz, but in reality, it was a lot more detailed than that. This game, like most of the Pelicans’ recent wins, came largely on the back of Williamson’s dominant mentality and attacking ferocity. It is a way of doing things that’s relentless and leaves no room for retreat – and he’s determined to stand by it.
If that means going right at Gobert, the two-time defensive player of the year, so be it.
Williamson attacked Utah’s All-Star big man hard and early, bulldozing him out of the way with speed, power and intent. In a third quarter where the Pelicans built up their lead, he was largely unstoppable, collecting 15 points and letting nothing – and no one – stand in his way.
“He’s fearless,” Williamson’s teammate Brandon Ingram said.
Williamson has been hyped ever since his early teens but this could be the season, the moment, where we are seeing a player with monumental potential truly start to work out what it takes to be an NBA dominator.
New Orleans is 15-19, good enough for only 11th in the laden Western Conference. They make mistakes and the defense needs work, but they have a young roster with serious upside and a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it offense that you could watch all day.
Head coach Stan Van Gundy has increasingly moved towards a “Point Zion” approach, where his young physical giant gets the ball on the perimeter and attacks from there. At a time when everyone else is throwing up 3-pointers for fun, New Orleans is attacking the basket, both as a direct approach and a means to create shooting space.
“He’s not going to waver for anybody,” Ingram added.
Van Gundy is liking what he sees and is looking forward even more to a time when Williamson is established enough that he starts getting more favor from the refs.
“Someday, he’s going to start getting the calls he deserves,” Van Gundy said. “Any time he’s not shooting 10 free throws or more, I guarantee they’re missing calls.”
The NBA is a reactive league and one game alone doesn’t crown a superstar. But, if you’re not already, start paying more notice to the Pelicans. Seriously, you’ll be doing yourself a favor.
Williamson is showing enough promise and potential for future growth that the Pelicans are taking a wait-and-see approach to pretty much everyone else on the roster, attempting to decipher who and what will form the optimal pieces around their shining star. Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, JJ Redick and Eric Bledsoe could be around for a while – or could be offered as trade pieces to try to land a big-name arrival.
After playing only 24 games in his rookie season, Williamson is now showing all the skills the team hoped for. However, even his biggest supporters in the building likely didn’t anticipate how he would be able to bring the best out of others with his intensity and refusal to take a backward step.
“The unrelenting, downhill style Williamson brings every night has started to rub off on his teammates, and it’s made the offense much more difficult to defend,” wrote The Athletic’s William Guillory.
New Orleans is one of the league’s smaller markets and teams outside the playoff picture in the West don’t typically get a lot of focus. And yet, Williamson’s highlight reels are unmissable and there are a growing number of people who can attest that he’s the realest of real deals.
Whether it all clicks into place in time to find true consistency this season or not, the Pelicans have a building block that is the envy of virtually every team in the league.
Whoever they decide to retain and whoever they put around him, the future of the franchise is hooked to one thing. It is – just like this has been – a Zion Williamson story.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
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