25-under-25: The uncertain inevitability of Zion Williamson

25-under-25, New Orleans Pelicans

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Death. Taxes. The return of Zion Williamson to the top of the NBA elite. All these things seem inevitable — as long as Zion’s body holds up, they will be.

Zion Williamson has not been the NBA’s version of Thanos in a long time. He has not played a basketball game since May 4, 2021 — a ho-hum for him (at the time) 23 points on 17 shots alongside 12 rebounds. His health and ability to commit to the New Orleans Pelicans was questioned alongside his conditioning for the better part of a year. Fairly or not, the meteoric rise of Zion Williamson from college main attraction at Duke to the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft felt like a mirage.

Of course, it was very real. The reason that Williamson was selected ahead of fellow South Carolinian and former AAU teammate Ja Morant, the reason he was compared to other unstoppable forces like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Shaquille O’Neal — his explosive blend of athleticism and size. It wasn’t just elite, it was otherworldly. But in order to showcase that uncommon ability, one must be on the floor. And Williamson left the floor — and the NBA stage — to the likes of Ja Morant and others.

It appears the time has come for Williamson to take back what is his. But when the moment arrives, his moment, will he be ready to take command of it? Or will his body, mind, or some combination of the two fail him again?

The footing of the redeemed Zion Williamson NBA experience begins with his ability to not just physically run and jump on his surgically repaired foot. That should come with treatment and time, and Williamson has had plenty of both. The real path to a renewed push for the Zion Age starts with how he interacts and mingles with his teammates.

Zion Williamson is rejoining a very different New Orleans Pelicans team

It’s a team that has improved significantly in his absence and in the wake of his contract extension. From C.J. McCollum’s arrival to the surprise performance of Herb Brooks and everyone in between, the Pelicans are primed to be one of the league’s “surprise” squads with regard to a playoff push. Teams like the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs will almost certainly fall out of the postseason conversation, and while New Orleans was already in that mix the chips are falling in a way that “The Big Easy” may be hosting a couple of playoff games come the spring.

That could be true even without Williamson. But with Zion — a fully healthy, fully bought in Zion — the Pelicans perhaps become something more than even the most generous New Orleans fan could bargain for. No one in the NBA combines violent finishes at the rim with the ability to create space to get there in the first place like Zion. His quick first step, his understanding of angles, his uncanny knack for using his frame to limit the capacity of his opponent to stop him … all these skills would make the likes of Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas even more dangerous.

At 6-foot-6, 285 pounds, Zion Williamson could make the NFL as a defensive end. He could learn how to skate and become a dominant defenseman. He has athleticism that transcends both sport and time, a true once-in-a-generation talent. Williamson can create in the half-court off the dribble and be a facilitator in the pick-and-roll game from both roles. Zion isn’t a consistent threat from 3 (yet), but alongside the likes of McCollum and Ingram that won’t matter as much.

This will be the best roster that Williamson has ever played alongside. He won’t have to carry the burden alone by any stretch as the Pelicans try to make a leap to legitimate postseason threat. That’s a major plus for a player who most certainly isn’t a “bust” to this point due to his health issues, but has fallen in favor across NBA circles. Whenever a redraft of the 2019 proceedings occurs, more often than not now Ja Morant is the No. 1 choice of pundits — an unfathomable thought over three years ago.

It was believed that Morant would be very good. But Zion was to be GREAT. It was predetermined. Unquestioned.

Inevitable.

This season could very well be the return of the NBA’s immovable object. Zion Williamson has all the tools to create just about every matchup issue known to man or woman for his opponents. Over-commiting to Zion means allowing one of his talented teammates to cook you, and Williamson has displayed the ability to create for others already (his 18.8 percent assist percentage was good for the 89th percentile in 2020-2021). And if the poor choice is made to leave Zion with his defender 1 on 1? Posterization is in the forecast.

How Williamson is able to move with his size will always be a concern. His defensive limitations as a big make his fit on that end of the floor questionable. But as a leaper, if his body can hold up he more than makes up for the unique challenges his frame provides. There are few players that can replicate what Zion brings to the Pelicans or any NBA team. In terms of potential, he is 1 of 1. There isn’t much he cannot do in a basketball game to help his team win.

As long as his body doesn’t fail him, it seems unwise to bet against Zion’s return to the top of the NBA young elite. He’s got good help by his side on his way back up the mountain…and if all else fails, who else in the NBA could seemingly jump up the metaphorical peak and lift the summit on his own massive shoulders? Uncertainty exists…but so does the sense that Williamson will soon be back where he belongs.

Zion Williamson is still inevitable. And the NBA had better take notice … before he forces them to.

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