WASHINGTON (AFP) – Zion Williamson has excited NBA fans like no rookie since LeBron James, but knee injuries before his debut have also brought worries about the New Orleans Pelicans teen star.
An incredible pre-season run saw Williamson average 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists a game in four games for the Pelicans, sinking a staggering 71 per cent of his shots and dominating inside.
“He’s a monster,” New York Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “He’s a beast. He’s just going to continue to get better and better. We understand that kid is one amazing player.”
But the 19-year-old United States (US) forward’s size – six-foot-seven and 285 pounds – combined with his high-leaping heroics as well as speed and power, has many worrying that nagging knee injuries will continue and worsen unless he loses weight and improves his fitness.
“He’s carrying so much weight. He’s so athletic. I think he’s going to have to lose a little bit more weight,” said retired NBA star and television analyst Paul Pierce.
Williamson will miss the Pelicans’ NBA season opener at Toronto and at least a couple of weeks as a result of a right knee injury suffered in a pre-season game. It’s the same knee he famously sprained in college when his Nike shoe exploded during a game.
The shoemaker’s stock fell USD1.1 billion the next day but Williamson’s stock has been rising since he turned high school stardom into a one-season run at Duke University – where he averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocked shots a game.
His 68 per cent accuracy rate was the best ever for a freshman player in major US college basketball.
“He’s too big, too strong. He’s going to continue to do that hopefully over his whole career,” said New York Knicks rookie RJ Barrett, formerly Williamson’s roommate at Duke.
It was enough to convince the Pelicans to select Williamson with the top pick in June’s NBA Draft and trade Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for young supporting talent that figures to blend well with Williamson.
“For me to be selected number one (in the NBA Draft), I can’t dream it no better than that,” Williamson said.
“I think we can build something. I see myself trying to step into a leadership role. I have to understand my teammates and understand where their heads are. It’s a matter of us coming together, making the same goals and just willing to win, and I think we can do something special.”
Williamson played only nine minutes in the Vegas Summer League before he banged his left knee in a collision and was benched for the remainder of the get-acquainted NBA games.
“The physicality is a little bit different. There are more players that are a lot stronger, so you have to find more skilled ways to score,” Williamson said.
“But I feel like with my size, it’s not going to be that big of an adjustment. I feel like I’ll adjust very well.”
There are plenty of other lifestyle changes in the NBA, the travel and longer schedule as well as faster and more physical rivals.
“It’s just a different lifestyle,” he said. “The grind is different. You always have to find different ways to stay ahead of your opponent.”
That has proven troublesome for the Pelicans in past years. New Orleans went 33-49 last season and the team has won only two playoff series since starting in 2002, never going past the second round of the post-season.
NBA general managers, however, predicted Williamson will be the 2020 NBA Rookie of the Year with 68 per cent support.
“I’m a Zion believer and whatever he does I’ll be right behind him 100 per cent,” said Pelicans guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker. “If he wants to shoot wide open threes and knock it down, then by all means keep doing that. It’s only going to make him harder to guard and the team better.”