8:58 AM EDT on October 20, 2022
In the first quarter of the Pelicans' season-opening game in Brooklyn, Zion Williamson caught the ball on the perimeter and stared down Ben Simmons, a strong guy who made first-team all defense in each of the last two full seasons he played and was last seen bodying up Giannis Antetokounmpo in the preseason. Williamson had spent his first quarter of NBA basketball since May 4, 2021 pounding the glass and serving up uncannily accurate interior passes to Jonas Valanciunas, but surely Simmons could stay in front of Williamson in space? Surely Williamson's violence-heavy game—if a neutron star could play point guard—is not silky enough for him to navigate through a Simmons's exterior defense? No, he kicked his ass.
While Simmons fouled out in 23 minutes, Williamson enjoyed a dream start to his season, dropping 25 points, snagging nine boards (at least three of which he had no business grabbing), and stealing the rock four times. As Ja Morant has refined the art of humiliating defenders and Nikola Jokic invented a new system of geometry, I began to forget what a thrill the full-bore Zion Williamson experience was. One and a half years of questions about your weight, your horrid injury history, and the relationship between the two will do that. Also, the last time he was playing, he was handling the ball and serving as the kinda-sorta point guard for the Pelicans, who were bad then, but are good now, and are good in such a way that precludes that specific brand of the Zion Williamson Experience.
The last time Williamson stepped foot on an NBA court before this week, his fellow starters included Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, and Steven Adams. One of those guys isn't in the league, the other two have scattered, and their coach now works for TNT. In the intervening 533 days between that game and his long-awaited return to the floor, his team underwent one of the most dramatic vibe shifts in the entire league. The Pelicans lost 12 of their first 13 games last season before Willie Green found his stride, the team's entire 2022 draft class showed out, Brandon Ingram made the leap, and a late trade for C.J. McCollum vaulted them into a fierce 1-8 series with the Suns.
While all that was happening, Williamson was fighting through some very concerning and ill-defined injuries, being weird about communicating with his new teammates, and generally comporting himself like someone who was prepared to make the biggest self-bet in NBA history and accept a one-year qualifying offer. For all the good feelings in town after the Pelicans made it through the play-in and Herb Jones and Trey Murphy showed themselves to be real building blocks, Williamson is the guy. Nobody can do what he does, which is both a promise and a challenge. How would Willie Green reintegrate this odd, spheroid man with such perfect touch around the hoop into a team that already had defensive issues?
Very easily, is the answer. Williamson is such a good passer and off-ball player that he can still walk into 20 points in the paint by hitting the glass and cutting at the right time. Poor Simmons couldn't do a thing against Williamson if he decided he was going to get to the hoop, and the maturation of Herb Jones into someone who looks like he'll be up for taking the toughest wing assignment every night helps solve of the Pelicans' supposed defensive woes. Also, any team with Williamson and Valanciunas on the court at the same time is going to grab every available rebound, and on Wednesday the Pelicans out-boarded Brooklyn by 22. I should stress here that this is all very fun to watch. You do not have to be a basketball fan, I think, to enjoy watching Williamson play; you just have to be a person with a body who understands the limits of gravity and enjoys seeing them profaned. Because this new Zion, a clearly springier and lighter yet unavoidably huge Zion, is hopefully going to spend all season doing bad stuff to opponents. This is also how I feel about Williamson.