Zion Williamson can’t hide. Most NBA players stand out against the civilian population, but he’s like Shaq or Giannis: you look at him and think when did they start making people like that? A graceful dump truck of a man. The problem with that is, everybody thinks they can measure him just by glancing at him. Because it’s true: he has at most points of his professional career—which has barely started, and then only sporadically—looked out of shape. Or sometimes not out of shape so much as massive in a way that makes you slightly afraid for him. You know he’s got to move that frame up and down the court 70-plus nights per year, launch it into the air, haul it laterally, and though you’re no expect in biomechanics, you’ve seen bridges buckling in earthquakes, little kids with large jugs of fruit punch. You have a layman’s nose for impending disaster. This won’t end well.
But you don’t actually know. The Pelicans have been eager to point out that Zion’s an aerobic freak. David Griffin has talked about how “when he went through his physical [at training camp in 2019], he ran on the treadmill longer than the cardio stress test people have ever needed to put anybody through a test to get his heart rate up.” Stan Van Gundy said that at the Pels’ first day of practice two weeks ago, when he and his staff put the team through their paces with some running drills, Zion and Nickeil Alexander-Walker were the standouts. Stan says there are no limits on Zion’s availability coming into the season. The plan is to play him as much as the coach deems necessary. If they’re concerned about his conditioning in New Orleans, they’re telling everybody the exact opposite.
This feels like a careful elision of the more pressing question. There seems to be less doubt about Zion’s ability to play for 35 minutes per night as there is about whether his legs can hold up their end of the bargain over many years of wear and tear. For a young guy, he has a rather long record of knee injuries, everything from deep bruises to sprains to the torn meniscus he suffered in preseason play last fall. There’s a lot about Zion that doesn’t make sense, but the laws of physics do apply to him, if seemingly more loosely than the rest of us. Those frequently aching joints can carry only so much weight. He and his doctors and trainers have the expertise figure out what a manageable number is, but it’s probably not 280 pounds.
That’s where the concern about Zion’s weight should start and end. He can be doughy or chiseled; it doesn’t matter. Nikola Jokić has been carrying some pudge his entire career, and while there’s clearly a positive difference between the Joker now and several years ago—he has stopped housing two-liter bottles of soda, thank god—he doesn’t need to have Meyers Leonard’s physique in order to put up 24, 15, and 8 in a playoff game. Whatever keeps you on the court and effective, that’s good enough.
The worries about Zion come primarily from wanting him to succeed. He’s a very likable figure, sort of comic given his proportions, with a charisma that’s rare for his age. And there is the strong possibility that he’s going to be an awesome pro, though that’s not exactly his appeal. It’s that he’s already unique. By contrast, when Karl-Anthony Towns came into the league, he was immediately incredible. (More exciting then than he is now, given that he’s stagnated a bit in Minnesota.) You could easily envision him competing for MVPs in his mid-20s. But we’d seen players like KAT before, athletic fives with smooth post footwork and excellent touch. He’s an evolutionary talent. Zion is an absurdity. Sort of similar to Charles Barkley, with some LeBron in there, a hint of Rajon Rondo, as strange as that sounds. He’s almost entirely his own thing. There are players who come along every decade or so, and they invent a new grammar, sometimes even a new language of basketball.
And with Zion, we merely want the time to understand it. He’s played 24 NBA games, nine fewer than he participated in at Duke. We’re still dealing in truncated forms here. Chapbooks, novellas, student films. LeBron’s entering Year 18, exploring the upper limits of how much material a generational star can give us. It’s not that Zion needs to approach that level of greatness so much as fully articulate his peculiar way of playing the game, which is something he’ll be able to do only over a decade-plus. Hence the fascination with his weight. We fear it might impede his expression. Or at least that’s what the decent ones among us are thinking. The folks treating him like roundball Chris Farley can take a hike.
Have we mentioned he looks good? Relatively slimmed down, ready for action. He has apparently been taking fine care of himself in quarantine, which is better than most of us can say. This season won’t be easy on anyone, and the Pels will likely be more careful than they’re letting on at the moment, but all indications are this is going to be Zion’s true rookie year. With a lot of work, and any luck, it’ll be a success.
More 2020 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2019 Histories: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Houston Rockets | Golden State Warriors | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards
2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic
2017 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2016 Futures: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Golden State Warriors | Houston Rockets | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards