Will Zion Williamson Eventually Become the Face of the NBA?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2020

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson watches the video screen during a player introduction video before the team's NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets in New Orleans, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. The rookie first round draft pick is recovering from knee surgery. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

In the early 2000s, the NBA went through something of a post-Michael Jordan vacuum. Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and a host of other young talents will prevent such a dip in the 2020s.

LeBron James is in his 17th NBA season. For well over a decade, he was widely viewed as the best player in the NBA. Some, such as Jimmy Butler, may still see him that way, but there's little doubt we're nearing the end.

When LeBron finally calls it a career, who will be next?

Kevin Durant (31), Stephen Curry (31) and James Harden (30) are all probably too old for this conversation. We'll have to look to the younger crop of stars for someone who can carry the league for 10-plus years.

Giannis already has an MVP to his name. And he's even better in 2019-20. His production per 75 possessions is remarkable (like Curry in 2015-16, Antetokounmpo's individual numbers are suppressed by his team's greatness and the lack of minutes that results from that): 33.7 points, 14.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.9 threes, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks.

In some ways, he almost feels like the next evolutional link after LeBron: an otherworldly athlete who plays point forward and is in complete control of his team, only he somehow has greater size.

Then there's Luka, who is doing things we've never seen from a 20-year-old. His numbers? 32.2 points, 10.8 rebounds and 10.0 assists per 75 possessions. And he's piloting an offense that's on pace to be the greatest in NBA history.

If Giannis is a natural suspect for the physical heir apparent, Luka might be that on the skills front. At the age of 16, he started playing for Real Madrid, possibly the most celebrated basketball team outside the NBA. By the time he was 19, he was the EuroLeague MVP. His skills were honed at a level American teenagers can't imagine.

Others who may have an outside shot at face-of-the-league status include...

  • Anthony Davis (still just 26, with a combination of scoring and shot-blocking matched only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar);
  • Karl-Anthony Towns (24, and perhaps the most efficient scoring big man we've ever seen);
  • Nikola Jokic (24 years old and trails only LeBron and Michael Jordan in career box plus/minus);
  • Ben Simmons (has 3,269 points, 1,678 rebounds and 1,623 assists through 202 career games, totals matched only by Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson);
  • Trae Young (trails only Luka and LeBron for offensive box plus/minus in an age-21-or-younger season); and
  • Ja Morant (a walking highlight who has more 20 and 10 games through his first 36 appearances than all but six players).

Suffice to say, the league isn't short on young talent.

Giannis and Luka are probably the leaders in the clubhouse, but a player who has yet to make his NBA debut may crash this party. We've never seen anyone with the combination of size (6'7", 285 lbs) and athleticism Zion possesses. He's set to rumble onto the scene this week.

"Our anticipation is he'll play his first game on the 22nd at home against San Antonio," New Orleans Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin told reporters recently.

After roughly three months of waiting, the official start of Zion's career is upon us.

In case you don't remember, this is what he did last time he was on an NBA floor:

Zion put up a ridiculous line over four preseason games: 23.3 points (with a 73.7 true shooting percentage), 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in 27.2 minutes per game.

The most impressive individual performance came against the Utah Jazz and two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

Williamson wasn't just making open layups or cherry-picking in transition against Utah (or really anyone). He was going right at Gobert, absorbing contact and hanging long enough to finish after the 7'1" rim protector was out of the picture:

Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey

Zion Williamson's body control against two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert... https://t.co/NpX0qoCKrF

Much has been made of Zion's highlight dunks. And much should be made of them. But that body control is an underrated skill for the Pelicans rookie. LeBron's hang time was similarly impressive in his first year.

This reel contains plenty of athletic feats from the former Cleveland Cavalier, but this one is unique. LeBron jumps, seemingly thinking shot, but has the wherewithal to change plans midair and find a cutting teammate for an easier bucket:

On a more LeBron-like possession, Zion drove right, hit the paint and then exploded off the ground and to the left, gliding past a jumping Gobert:

Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey

Zion Williamson drives right, finishes left... https://t.co/eKRWwOfb7r

Again, LeBron showed similar abilities as a rookie:

We could probably go back and forth on this for much longer—and these aren't shots and abilities exclusive to Zion and LeBron—but the former clearly possesses physical traits similar to James, only he's doing it in an even bigger frame.

As Pelicans broadcaster Antonio Daniels repeatedly said during that Jazz game, Williamson can go over you, around you or through you. The same could be said of LeBron even now, a testament to his remarkable durability and longevity.

On that front, comparing the two starts to get a bit more difficult. Health concerns accompany Zion's unprecedented combination of size and explosiveness. New Orleans spent part of his rehab from the torn meniscus re-teaching him how to run and walk in an effort to prevent future injuries.

Landing, planting, cutting and exploding with that level of force and weight is a lot for joints to handle. A dedication to his body similar to that displayed by LeBron could go a long way toward keeping Zion on the floor.

Another area where the comparison breaks down is passing. It's one of the most underrated skills in basketball, and Zion isn't a standout. He can develop into a better playmaker over time, but LeBron entered the league with a level of vision and passing ability typically reserved for much older point guards.

Over the course of his career, he became one of the greatest passers of all time. He sees reads before anyone else, passes teammates into open space and has a deep reservoir of individual passes.

Expecting Zion to become that level of passer goes beyond ambitious. There are other areas where he might have an even higher ceiling than LeBron, though.

The value of individual rebounding has come under some scrutiny recently, but Zion is the kind of player who can single-handedly recover a few possessions for his team that other players couldn't. He's good at carving out space around the rim, exploiting paths to the ball and exploding for rebounds.

There's also an outside chance Zion becomes a more efficient scorer (likely on lower volume) than LeBron. Despite his shaky jump shot, Zion has the best true shooting percentage and effective field-goal percentage on record among players who took at least as many shots in an NCAA season.

Of course, this is an apples-to-carrots (not even oranges) comparison, because LeBron never played in college. But all the traits that leaped off the screen when Zion played at Duke translated seamlessly to preseason basketball.

He still looked like an athletic anomaly when surrounded by NBA players. He showed an ability to find cutting and driving lanes, as well as the patience necessary to hit them at just the right moment. Defense at this level may take him some time, but he has the physical tools to be good on that end.

There will be a battle for LeBron's throne whenever he vacates it. Few (Giannis might be the only one) are as physically prepared to take it as Zion.