'He's a force': Zion Williamson worth the price of admission vs. Bulls

'He's a force': Zion Williamson worth the price of admission vs. Bulls

On Thursday night, the Bulls fell 125-119 to the Pelicans at the United Center. It wasn't as close as that final score might appear. With 3:54 remaining, the Pelicans led 119-96 before a historic 15-point Adam Mokoka spurt sent the United Center into a derisive frenzy — a spurt that ultimately, of course, fell short. 

But let's not talk about that. Let's talk about Zion Williamson.

The 19-year-old rookie looked anything but in (somehow) just his eighth NBA game, flipping a scoreless first quarter into a 21-point, 9-for-11 shooting performance by game's end. It's his fourth consecutive game with 20 or more points, and sixth of eight overall.

Before you ask: Yes, the dunks were there. Two, to be exact. The latter one came with just over 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Though the game seemed out of reach for the hosts, Williamson refused to let an arcing, 30-foot Lonzo Ball lob escape his grasp:

That elicited the loudest reaction from the United Center crowd of the night (until, of course, Mokoka got going).

"I mean, it was a great pass from Lonzo," Williamson said when asked about that reaction.

That's Williamson's M.O.: Steady, humble, team-oriented. His teammates were willing to heap on a little more praise.

"Zion's Zion," Ball said. "Everywhere he goes, people gonna know him, people gonna come want to see him play."

"He's a force," J.J. Redick said. "No question, he's a force."

As those around the Pelicans are quick to note, Williamson's impact goes beyond the highlight package. All 11 of his field goal attempts tonight did come in the restricted area, but how he got there was unique: Dribble-drives, spinning post and face-up moves, deliberate cuts. Two qualities that bound them all together: Usually, the shots came through contact, and usually, they ended in the bottom of the netting.

Williamson also nabbed a career-high two steals in the victory.

"Obviously, he is a freak athlete, but he's also very skillful," Ball said. "You can give it to him on the break, postups, short rolls, so he can score in a lot of different ways. And that's why it's so hard to stop him."

Williamson made his final eight field goal attempts of the night and led the Pelicans in scoring. Only once has he shot under 50% from the floor in a game this season (against the Bucks when he went 5-for-19); thrice has he cleared 70. Tonight, his 9-for-11 mark was good for 81.8%.

His current 57.4% mark from the field is the best by a player through their first eight career games since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984-85.

"You're still amazed by it, for sure, you don't wanna get used to that, but other than the Bucks game he's been incredibly efficient every game," Redick said. "You can see the wheels turning a little bit as he's learning how to make reads."

That's the horrifying twist to Williamson's brilliance: He's just getting started. Williamson prides himself on being one that abides by the flow of the game and stays within himself, and tonight, he did just that in his 25 minutes.

With the victory, the Pelicans moved to 4-2 in games Williamson plays more than 25 minutes.

So, is it all starting to come together?

"No, not yet," Williamson said. "I am catching a little bit of a rhythm, but no it's not there yet."

If that's true... Run.

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4 things to look for: Zion makes his UC regular season debut vs Bulls

4 things to look for: Zion makes his UC regular season debut vs Bulls

The trade deadline debris is beginning to settle, and there's basketball to be played again! Zion Williamson and the Pelicans (losers of three straight but generally very fun) are in town, and the hype is real. Here's what to expect:

Buzz… And a whole lot of it

Williamson is the greatest show on hardwood right now, after all.

“It’s just different,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said after the team’s Thursday morning shootaround. “I've been around a lot of guys, you know, obviously with Steph [Curry] and that group in Golden State and Blake [Griffin] and [the Clippers], and even David Robinson and guys like that, it's just a different vibe altogether with him.

“I can't explain it, I really can't. It really is a phenomenon,” Gentry continued. “That every city, we get to a hotel at 3:00 in the morning and there's 25-50 people out there that want his autograph.”

A sea of assorted media, prim and punctual for the visiting Pels’ AM shootaround, nodded along.

With the level of acclaim Williamson has already garnered comes burden — of fame, expectation, and responsibility — and no one would blame that burden for weighing heavy on the shoulders of a 19-year-old rookie. Gentry said he takes it in stride.

“This has kinda been his normal for the last two or three years, really, since his high school days, so he's accustomed to that,” Gentry said. “He's a really bright kid and understands the dynamic of the media, so it's not anything that's intimidating to him I don't think.”

To that point: After getting his shots up and warmups in, Williamson retreated to the Pelicans’ locker room for a few moments of respite. But when he re-emerged to face the press scrum awaiting him, he sauntered relaxedly, wearing a sly yet knowing grin across his face.

“I enjoy it,” he said of his media responsibilities (with a smile, of course). “I find it very funny.

“I just make it fun, ’cause if I hate it, then it's not gonna be any fun. But it does surprise me. You know, I always try to figure out why so many people care about me. I'm just a regular guy.”

According to Gentry, that brand of humility was instilled in Williamson by his parents. Williamson concurred.

“It's one of those things where, people might say 'oh, you had a great game' this, that. But, you know, when I get home, I know I'm gonna hear the opposite,” he said with a laugh.

“We don’t have to worry about that one,” Gentry said. “Trust me on that, okay? He’ll be grounded.”

Small-ball

Still, all signs point to Williamson deeming himself ‘just a regular guy’ being a bit of an understatement. Even beyond the poster dunks, grappling hook steals and feats of heroic strength, Williamson has been a productive basketball player for the Pelicans, even in the brief stretch since his debut — he's averaging 19.6 points and 8 rebounds (3.6 offensive) on 54.6% field goal shooting (44.4% from 3) in his seven games this season.

Specifically intriguing to tonight’s matchup with the Bulls will be how often the Pelicans look to deploy Williamson in small-ball units. They typically opt to start him at the four, and per Cleaning the Glass, Pelicans' lineups with Williamson at center own a 119.7 offensive rating and 94.9 defensive rating (good for a 100th percentile 24.9 net rating) in 76 possessions this season (small sample size alert, but still).

“It was a little adjustment, but I did it a little bit at Duke, and the comfort level with that is, it's basketball,” Williamson said of his comfort playing the five. “And I'm able to use my speed and strength to get by the bigs off the perimeter… So with that, it's just trying to find a mismatch within the group.

Attacking mismatches is already one of Williamson’s greatest skills. Across from with most any traditional center in the league, Williamson has proven adept scoring off the dribble, through contact, facing up and out of the post. One wrong twitch and you’re right where he wants you:

 

Bulls coach Jim Boylen said yesterday that Thad Young will draw primary responsibilities on Williamson, but if he happens into a matchup with any of the Bulls’ traditional bigs, lookout. On the offensive glass (his second jump is ridiculous) and leading in transition, Williamson should be a handful, as well.

The Jordan connection

A small aside, but Williamson did add, of playing again in the house that Michael Jordan spent the mid- and late-1990’s rocking: “[Michael Jordan]’s been my favorite player while I've been growing up. You gotta respect the building, gotta respect what he's done for the game, obviously.”

That will endear him plenty to the Chicago faithful. As would another outing akin to the 29 points on 12-for-13 shooting when these teams squared off in the preseason.

And don’t worry about his toe

Williamson is dealing with a right toe sprain, which landed him on the team’s injury report Wednesday evening. The Pelicans later updated his status to ‘available’ and both he and Gentry appeared nonplussed when questioned about it. 

“He's fine. It's not even open for discussion,” Gentry said.

“I just had a tiny bit of discomfort in it, nothing major. I'm fine,” Williamson added.

And of weight concerns?

“He's just coming back, you know, and he's played I guess seven or eight NBA games. I don't think anybody going to be in midseason form having played seven or eight NBA games,” Gentry said. “I'm fine with where he is and what he's doing and you guys gotta look past this thing that everybody talks about, his durability because of the size that he is or whatever, he's gonna be fine.”

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Zion Williamson (right toe sprain) upgraded to available for Bulls-Pelicans

zion-williamson-106.jpg
USA Today

Zion Williamson (right toe sprain) upgraded to available for Bulls-Pelicans

False alarm, people.

Hours after listing Zion Williamson as questionable for the Pelicans' matchup with the Bulls Thursday, New Orleans upgraded its rookie phenom's status to available.

The Pelicans appeared to be playing it safe with Williamson's minutes to start, but his playing time has been on an upward trend, of late. Williamson has logged more than 30 minutes in each of the team's last two games.

Reports of a right toe sprain were thus a bit concerning, but it seems like Williamson will be able to soldier through without significant risk. The Pelicans wouldn't list him as available if there was.

Still, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Alvin Gentry and co. monitor his minutes closely on Thursday. We'll know more on that front as we move closer to gametime.

Williamson being available at all makes this one a must-watch, regardless. Even with only seven career games under his belt, he's already one of the more exciting draws in the league.

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