Why Zion Williamson is the NBA’s Next Savior

By Aaron Hook, Assistant Sports Editor

Breaking your own record, in anything, is not what one would call “easy”. And yet, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry said otherwise when he broke his previously owned NBA record for most three-pointers made in a single season. With seemingly little to no effort. Then, he casually went ahead and drained the fourth and third-most threes in a season ever over the next three seasons.

Since his incredible 2015-16 Unanimous MVP season, the one in which he broke his previously held record, one he set in the previous season where he also won the MVP (not unanimously), Curry has been recognized by the majority of NBA fans as the greatest three-point shooter who has ever walked the earth.  He not only broke records, screwed around and had 5 of the best shooting seasons of all time, including the BEST shooting season of all time, but at the same time, he changed, and saved, the NBA.

Curry’s pure dominance from behind the arc is something the league had never seen. Sure, there had been guys like Larry Bird 30 years before him, who was truly the first player to master the trifecta, as well as other snipers like Dennis Scott, Reggie Miller, and Ray Allen.
Then, of course, there were those who utilized it as a big part of their incredible scoring repertoires, such as Michael Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant. But there has NEVER, and I mean NEVER, been someone who took the three-pointer, revolved nearly their entire game around it, and shot it so well. Don’t get me wrong, Curry is not just a three-point shooter. His dynamic playmaking ability with his excellent court vision and incredibly tight handle allows him to get to the basket with ease, and he’s thrown himself in the conversation as one of the best finishers in the league in recent years.

But none of those things can do what the three-pointer and Stephen Curry did. It changed the NBA. It changed the sport of basketball. Somewhere in China, there’s a 12-year-old kid wearing a vintage Golden State Warriors jersey, with the #30 on his back, shooting from 30 feet in a pickup game, every possession.

In 2016, a viral video of then High School Sophomore LaMelo Ball (Potential #1 Overall Draft Pick in this year’s Draft) pointing to the logo of the high school his Chino Hills squad was playing a late December regular-season tilt against. Ball then proceeded to then walk the ball up the court, stop at half court, and pull from a few inches beyond the line. And with supreme confidence, he watched as it dropped in from 42 feet. I am utterly certain that if Stephen Curry didn’t roll along and hit some shots near half-court himself over the past few seasons, Ball would be benched immediately for even talking the shot. But at that point in time, that shot was somewhat acceptable in a high school basketball game, courtesy of Stephen Curry. The NBA statistics are there to back it up as well. In the 2013-14 season, the Houston Rockets led the NBA in three-point attempts per game with 26.4. 6 years later, the Rockets lead the NBA in three-pointers attempted once again. Only this time, they’ve nearly doubled their rate, shooting 44.4 per game.
While this a drastic change, you really need to look at the bottom of the league to see how much the NBA has fallen in love with the three-point shot ever since Curry’s stretch of incredible marksmanship. Remember how I told you the Rockets led the league in attempts from deep in 2013-14 with 26.4? Well, this season, the Indiana Pacers are dead last in the league in terms of three-point attempts. They attempt 27.7 threes a game. Yeah.

What I’m getting at here is while, yes, Stephen Curry undeniably revolutionized the landscape of the sport, but he also SAVED it simultaneously. After a couple of eras of dominant centers winning championships (Russell, Hakeem, Shaq), bully ball (Wallace, both Rasheed and Ben, Artest, the entire Bad Boy Pistons late 80’s squads), and winning games inside the arc, Stephen Curry was at the forefront of a three-point shooting phenomenon that brought new, exciting life to the game. And now, it’s starting to get a tiny bit old.
While still astonishing to watch, many NBA fans now are starting to complain about the way the league has shaped its mainstream offensive attack. The era of launching threes is upon us and probably won’t go away for a while. I’ve already written an article about how the Houston Rockets, the team that has adapted to the trifecta trample the most besides Golden State, use their star James Harden along with everyone else on the team in a three-point heavy system, and have recently gone to the extreme by trading Center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks, and now run 6’5 P.J. Tucker at center. But amid this incredible spectacle of firing up as many shots as possible to try and win championships, which has proved to be a successful strategy for the most part, there is one man, relatively new to the NBA, who is turning back the clock, playing complete bully ball, and taking the league by storm while doing it. And he’s a rookie.

Chances are, you knew who Zion was before he got drafted 1st overall in this past year’s NBA Draft, and even before he enrolled for his freshman year at Duke. Williamson’s high school mixtapes, which featured incredible high flying dunks, off alley-oops or jumping from the free-throw line in transition after getting a steal, as well as monster blocks, a smooth outside jumper, and just the sheer physical presence of the 6’6, 270-pound specimen that is the topic of this article.

Williamson truly shined on the biggest stage at Duke, as the nation’s attention was on the Blue Devils the entire 2018-19 season. Duke featured the top three incoming recruits in the country on the same squad, in R.J. Barrett (New York’s Savior?), Cam Reddish, who has since carved out a nice rookie campaign for himself in Atlanta, and of course, Zion.
In his lone season in the collegiate level, Williamson lived up to the hype he had coming out of Spartanburg Day School in South Carolina, averaging 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals, and 1.8 blocks a night, and he was rewarded with a ton of accolades, including the Wooden Award, given to the Nation’s best player every year, the ACC Player of the Year, and being named a consensus All-American all while leading Duke to an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA tournament. Williamson was most likely the projected #1 pick after his senior year at Spartanburg, but his historic freshman campaign sealed the deal and was selected with the top pick by the New Orleans Pelicans. After massive expectations began to peak in early July after Williamson’s first Summer League game, where he tallied 11 points, 3 rebounds, and a steal in 9 minutes, news broke that he had hurt himself in the opening tilt of that year’s SL competition and would miss the rest of the Summer league.  Then, on October 21st, days before NBA opening night, when Williamson’s Pelicans were set to play the defending champion Toronto Raptors, Williamson had surgery to repair a knee injury, one he had aggravated from early on in the summer, and would miss 6-8 weeks. The NBA community would have to wait even longer for the debut of the most hyped draft prospect since LeBron James.

When Williamson made his highly anticipated debut on January 22nd, a nationally televised matchup against San Antonio, fans questioned how he would fare in limited minutes. Zion gave us what we wanted, and a WHOLE lot more. With over 10 minutes to go, Williamson had just 5 points and 5 had committed 5 turnovers in only 12 minutes. Then, he put together a truly magical 3-minute stretch where he shot 4-4 from three-point range and had 17 points. While the Spurs came out on top in the box score, claiming a 121-117 road win in New Orleans,  Zion was the real winner of the night, scoring 22 points in 16 minutes and capturing the attention of NBA fans, for good.

While Williamson did shoot 4-4 from three that night and is shooting 41.7% for the season on less than an attempt per game, he scores most of his points on the inside, as I mentioned earlier, playing the definition of bully ball. Driving straight to the rim from all lanes, angles, backing down and using his physicality in the post, as well as cleaning up on the offensive glass. While there are still a handful of guys in the league that play this style of basketball (Boston’s Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams, Brooklyn’s DeAndre Jordan), Zion is a breath of fresh air amongst NBA stars, as he is averaging 24.2 points per night as of March 4th, which is the highest rookie scoring mark this century, as well as 6.9 rebounds, just under a steal a game and is shooting an ultra-efficient 58.8% from the field. In a modern era dominated by shots coming from 25 feet away from the iron, Zion Williamson has won the hearts of NBA fans across the globe with his ability to go against the norm and dominate in his own way, by using his incredible combination of physical size and otherworldly athleticism to score at ease. Outside of this, Williamson seems to have an “It” factor that most great players that have walked through this league and did whatever they wanted in it have had. The 19 year old seems to be determined to build his own legacy and is already a fierce competitor.

While I’m no fan of Skip Bayless’ tweets, and while I’m a big fan of LeBron James, I do have to admit, I like the things he said in a tweet that many fans were quick to call a “reach”. On March 1st, a day after Williamson’s Pelicans fell to James’ Lakers, Bayless tweeted “Funny, LeBron seems off-balance because Zion won’t suck up to him the way other young stars do. I love Zion for keeping a competitive arm’s length from LeBron. So LeBron approached Zion after the game and whispered advice to him. HE DIDN’T ASK FOR IT, KING. GIVE IT UP.” While the end part is a classic Skip Bayless attempt at degrading LeBron, I have to say that this tweet seems to make sense. There was a clip showing Williamson, who scored 35 points in the loss, giving LeBron (34 point Triple Double with the W) a quick dap up at half court, and then James proceeds to whisper something in Zion’s ear, most likely something along the lines of a cliche “This league will be your’s soon”, you see Williamson quickly nod his head and move on, obviously upset from the loss. It’s good to see a young player want to learn from the greats, but at the same time do it the way he wants to.

And for fans of this generation and the ones to come, seeing someone play like this for so long is what could catapult Zion Williamson into the position of holding the title as the NBA’s next Savior, up there along with the likes of Magic and Bird in the 80’s, MJ in the 90’s, Kobe and Shaq in the 2000’s, and LeBron in the 2010’s.

And the best part? He’s played 16 games in his career. We’ve got a lot of Zion left NBA fans.