Written by JR Gamble for The Shadow League
Revisionist history is a real thing in today’s sports coverage. If you base your overall hoop opinions on the last six months of NBA action, you’d actually think that Ja Morant was the hands-down top player in the 2019 Draft. That the hype leading up to the draft was all about the dynamic guard from Murray State.
Truth is, it was all about Mount Zion.
Zion Williamson was one of the most highly anticipated NBA draft picks and money-generating ballers in college history coming out of Duke. The way Duke and college basketball as a whole capitalized on his name, image and likeness during his one season under Coach K contributed to the drastic rules changes allowing for elite college ballers to finally get paid in NIL deals.
The hype surrounding him was similar to when LeBron James hit the scene and the prognosis was that he was a generational superstar who would transform any franchise that selected him. The conversation was actually about which players would go 2-5. Morant emerged as the No. 2 overall pick and while Zion struggled with nagging injuries and weight, Morant emerged as a budding superstar.
The public narrative surrounding Zion quickly turned negative and the whispers and concerns about his size and conditioning and his body’s ability to thrive under its current weight and with his taxing style of play came into question.
Zion became the butt of jokes thrown his way by the TNT crew, most notably Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. Zion’s weight has been the focus point of every conversation since.
“As far as Zion’s weight goes, it is something he has to manage,” David Grubb, Pelicans Scoop for SI writer/contributor told The Shadow League. “I don’t think anyone has ever questioned Zion’s desire to play, but his work ethic and eating habits have been talked about since his rookie year. I think it’s a maturity question and you add his injuries to it, and it’s not hard to see how things got away from him.“
Barkley hasn’t let Zion forget his weight struggles. Some call it brow-beating; others call it tough love from a guy whose Hall of Fame game and girth have drawn comparisons to Zion. When confronted with his own weight concerns throughout his career, Barkley, on “The Dan Patrick Show,” broke down why he and Zion’s motivational circumstances were not the same:
“The most money I’ve ever made is like $5 million dollars. I’ve been blessed. I don’t care about money. But if somebody told me they were getting ready to give me $200 million, I would be the skinniest power forward in the history of civilization.”
Modern-Day Sam Bowie?
As Ja Morant dominated in the playoffs and he and his dad, Tee, provided the league with an injection of much-needed entertainment and excitement for the younger generation, some even suggested that New Orleans selected a potential “bust.”
One reporter likened the 2019 Draft to when (after Akeem Olajuwon went No. 1 overall to Houston) center Sam Bowie was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers over Michael Jordan who fell into the Chicago Bulls’ lap at No. 3 in the 1984 Draft. Bowie’s career was riddled by foot injuries (sound familiar?) and Jordan went on to captivate hoops fans for years en route to becoming the GOAT.
But Zion’s no Bowie. He can ball his ass off and he’s basically unstoppable 10 feet and in. Nobody will dispute that. His only equal in the paint is probably Giannis.
During his 26-game shortened rookie season, due to injury, Zion was put on a minutes restriction of 28 MPG but still averaged 22.5 PPG and 6.2 RPG on 58.3 percent shooting from the field. He even hit 42 percent of his three-point attempts, which suggests that the glaring weakness in his game is indeed a work in progress.
Zion silenced the critics in his second season. He stayed pretty healthy, playing in 61 games, averaging 27.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 3.7 apg on 61.1 percent from the floor and was an All-Star.
Williamson had finally emerged and the Pelicans brass had optimism that Zion could remain healthy and be the franchise player that they need, along with other burgeoning youngsters such as Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones and eventually C.J. McCollum.
However, Zion didn’t play a minute in 2022 and the relationship between the former No. 1 overall pick and the Pelicans brass – and the fans – seemed to fracture.
We’ve all seen the videos of Zion dunking in street clothes and the proclamation of a clean bill of health entering the 2023 season. The Pelicans took the Suns to six games in the first round of the NBA playoffs, so any optimistic fan would be looking forward to a serious playoff run next season. Especially if they don’t expect the Pels to offer him a max extension.
“But this is as critical a year as any young player has had, so if he isn’t ready from day one there will be a lot of hard looks at Zion,” Grubb continued.
Questions linger about Zion’s desire to even remain on the Pelicans. It would be a shame if the current compilation of talent didn’t get a chance to mesh with Zion. Grubb says Zion isn’t jumping ship and the Pels aren’t looking to unload him.
“I think Zion will play for the Pelicans…this season. His long-term future is still cloudy. It’s not his team, he hasn’t been around. Does he fit into what the rest of the Pelicans are doing? That’s a mystery at this point. The city and the franchise want to find out, so I think they try for as long as they can. If it doesn’t, then I could see a deal going down after the season.”
The saga of Zion Williamson continues.