Zion Williamson doesn’t dunk anymore. Okay, that’s not true: he has attempted 65 dunks this season, or roughly one per game. But he attempted none against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night, despite all of his field goals coming from within the paint—and most were within the restricted area. He scored 34 points, and his New Orleans Pelicans won 112-104. And while there was something incredible about each of his buckets, there’s no mistaking it: Williamson is now a layup artist, getting on the scoreboard in decidedly less pyrotechnic ways than before.

Many bodacious young dunkers go this way. Their knees and feet, destroyed by crunchy post-slam landings, demand it. The drunken, post-biological hype that greets the shocking beginnings of their careers reduces into a quieter appreciation, shared mostly between the fans of said player’s home team and those studious enough to follow the second-act star into their less aesthetically gobsmacking era. Zion’s second chance came early, though: he’s still just 23, playing through the first year of his first big contract, which is full of performance-related financial stipulations put in place because of how turbulent the first four years of his career were.

At this still pretty green age, Williamson has already changed a lot, and has the posture and grimace of a man more than a decade into the NBA—he has missed over 200 games due to injury, been criticized for his body and diet, and had some gnarly formative romantic episodes exposed at a level that no one would like. But the discourse about him has been more muted, lately. He is healthier, having played 55 out of 66 possible games, as he and the Pelicans seem to have finally figured out a plan for ramping him up as the season goes along; his bouncy athleticism is now cresting, his bursts to the rim more unguardable with every week.

He’s looking trimmer, too, and perhaps most important of all: those layups. They are the work of a weathered craftsman, more Andre Miller than Ja Morant. His finishing package is no longer viral fodder, unless the internet is about to be composed exclusively of 42-year-old men who value subtle grace and finesse more than the loud, mean, explosive stuff Zion used to be known for. Now, he uses just as much of his powers as he needs to. This is partly because he has a better understanding of the advantages he gets from his feathery touch; his ability to loft the ball home from strange, kinetic bodily angles better than anyone except maybe Nikola Jokic.

But he now also has a dad-dominating-on-the-driveway literacy with angles. Zion can take three dribbles and use his shoulders to create a one-man hallway for himself, yes. But he can also jump into a defender’s realm only a little bit, but still stay flying exactly long enough to release the ball after their contesting arms have descended a smidge. He can switch shooting hands as he attacks. He can go Moses Malone mode, and out-muscle a crowd for a rebound and putback. He can recognize defenses over-exerting on Brandon Ingram or CJ McCollum, and flash into the lane, off-ball, for a quick pass and finish. He can spin and lean and score as he’s almost falling. If all else fails, he can forego the big man battlefield by stopping short and delivering a high-arc teardrop shot over everything. These are all ways of being a layup guy, and Zion is the most formidable of those alive right now. He is Mister Layup.

Surround Williamson with playmakers like Ingram and McCollum, three-and-D wings like Trey Murphy III and Herb Jones, a huge skilled center in Jonas Valanciunas, and perpetual rascals like Jose Alvarado, Larry Nance Jr., and Naji “The Knife” Marshall and you’ve got quite the constellation of talent around the ultra-dense basketball planet that is Zion. The Pelicans would be clear underdogs against the defending champion Denver Nuggets, but for any other Western Conference playoff opponent they may field, fear of the bird is an appropriate feeling.

Pelicans fans can’t quite believe in what’s happening yet, no matter how obvious their team’s ascendance is starting to look. It has been a star-crossed decade and a half for this post-Hornets franchise, with only one playoff series win coming out of the bayou. And in the Williamson/Ingram years, especially, injuries seem to occur with a timing and pattern that suggests God doesn’t want them to succeed. But usually, that’s already happened to them by mid-March. Thriving and unencumbered by curses, with 16 games left, the Pelicans are in territory both unfamiliar and promising.