Why Zion Williamson should wait to snatch torch from LeBron James

Zion Williamson (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Zion Williamson would be wise to hold off a couple of months before giving the game’s current torchbearer a firsthand look at all his fire.

Beginning at 10 p.m. Tuesday (TNT) from the Staples Center, 19-year-old New Orleans Pelicans rookie bully Zion Williamson will likely see opportunities to swipe the lunch money of 35-year-old Los Angeles Lakers great LeBron James and stuff it in his sagging pockets.

But Williamson should play nice instead. The same goes for their playdate in Louisiana at 8 p.m. Sunday (ESPN).

Why wait? We’ll get to that. First, though, we must take a look at what Williamson did to an innocent 27-year-old last time out. As part of his 28-point, seven-rebound show in Sunday’s 115-101 comeback win on the road against the Golden State Warriors, the 6-foot-6, 285-pound power forward once again asserted his dominance over the NBA playground with his it’s-my-ball mentality and added Damion Lee to his list of theft victims:

In his first 12 appearances — after sitting out the first 44 games this season while recovering from October knee surgery — the 2019 No. 1 draft pick is averaging 22.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists with a 58.6 field goal percentage.

And Zion Williamson averaged 29.0 points across the past four games, joining Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Jay Vincent, per ESPN, as the only rookies since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976 to pop off four consecutive 25-point performances while shooting at least 55 percent in each.

Somehow, to the astonishment of his quietening critics, Williamson has thus far managed to exceed expectations that came with his sweep of national player of the year honors as a Duke basketball freshman. In fact, one could argue the NBA looks even easier than the NCAA for the native of Spartanburg, S.C., which makes sense considering triple-teaming is easier for defenses to pull off in college.

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That brings us to his first meeting against James. Winners of five of the past six, 25-32 New Orleans now sits only three games back of the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. Taking into account this hot streak, Zion Williamson’s otherworldly presence, and the 6.5 games that currently separate No. 8 and No. 7, the smart money would be on the Pelicans to face the Lakers — who at 43-12 currently hold a five-game cushion for the No. 1 seed — in the first round of the playoffs.

Yes, two upsets over Los Angeles in a span of six days would go a long way in helping turn that possibility into a reality for New Orleans. Even sweeter, on the other hand, would be for the Bayou Blue Devils — featuring a fivesome of former Duke basketball players, of which sharpshooter J.J. Redick and All-Star Brandon Ingram are also foundations to the team’s success — to defeat James and Anthony Davis without Williamson having to show his full hand.

Besides, even if both matchups result in losses, the Pelicans would still have ample time to secure a place in the postseason. And that, of course, would be the ideal time for Zion Williamson to unleash his full arsenal on the 6-foot-9, 250-pound LeBron James.

Would it even be possible, though, for Williamson to lead what would be only the sixth occurrence in league history of a No. 8 seed taking down a No. 1 seed?

Well, we’re no doubt getting ahead of ourselves right now, but it surely would be within the realm of possibility in the minds of those who believed Zion’s first 12 NBA games could be better than LeBron’s first 12 NBA games in terms of average points (22.8 to 17.5) and rebounds (7.2 to 6.5) — not to mention field goal percentage (58.6 to 44.4).

In short, Zion Williamson should be patient in seizing the league’s throne. Yet in reality, as King James will probably find out shortly after the tip on Tuesday and again on Sunday, heir-apparent bullies like Zion are typically short on patience.

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Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more updates, analyses, and opinions regarding Zion Williamson and all things Duke basketball: past, present, future, and in the NBA.