Zion Williamson, as we all know, popped on the national scene two years ago thanks to the viral nature of his impressive athletic exploits. After the initial explosion of hype, Wise Basketball Knowers of Twitter began throwing up weak floating commentary like “well let’s see him do it against real competition.” Zion swatted those excuses into the front row when he dunked all over Kentucky in the season opener, but thanks to Duke’s non-conference scheduled being perceived as weak, People Who Haven’t Played Since Middle School began bringing the exact same weak stuff back to the basketball discourse.
Since Duke’s only conference loss has come in a close contest missing Cam Reddish and Tre ‘Stones II’ Jones, and Zion’s dominance has only shined brighter, these sorts of comments are not longer really applicable.
There are, of course, NBA Types who are simply translating the doubt to the next level, but they’re largely outnumbered by fans of the Knicks, Hawks, Cavs, Bulls, and Suns whose only solace is that the end of this terrible season their team will have a chance at Zion Williamson.
I have no intention of trying to pull the “nobody believed in us” scam that the Patriots are currently attempting. Zion has far more Instagram followers than legitimate haters, and the national media has anointed him as the next LeBron as much as possible without saying it outright – Barkley is a safe NBA comp, mostly because he’s well into his retirement, but everyone is really thinking about the King.
Although media coverage has yet to enter hyperbolic regions, as it’s difficult enough to simply describe what Zion does without making up even more fantastical things and the sheer volume of Zion posting may be starting to irritate people. ESPN, which has been the subject of online criticism for some time now, cannot post a legitimate Zion highlight without crude memes critiquing a perceived obsession. Same goes for once-loved Bleacher Report, although to be fair their social media presence has always been somewhat corny.
Regardless, this is a reminder of what happened to Trae Young last year: he was openly touted as the next Steph, and every college basketball segment involved Trae Young speculation ad nauseam. Eventually, people grew tired of the hype, as they always do. It’s possible that the backlash was made worse by Oklahoma’s mediocrity that year. Nobody wants to watch a gunner on a bad team, and even if he did display good passing skills in addition to an affinity for hoisting contested 30-footers, it hardly matters when the targets of his passes can’t pay them off.
So far, his rookie year has gone exactly as his haters have hoped: he’s still gunning on a bad team, but he’s shooting brutal percentages from beyond the arc, and turns the ball over a ton. This doesn’t really matter this season, as the Hawks seem halfway committed to the Zion tank-a-thon, and will likely end up with a single-digit pick in a draft with top-heavy surefire picks – the Mavs deal seems to be working for both teams, so far. Zion’s team, unlike Young’s is insufferably (for non-Duke fans) talented and successful. This means he’s still a pleasure to watch, and as much as people love to hate Duke, media and college ball fans alike have admitted this year’s team is really likeable, talent aside.
Zion’s only real flaw is his jump shooting. Although he shot well against Notre Dame, that’s proven the exception to the rule so far. He gets his buckets most efficiently in the paint, and has developed a variety of ways to access that area despite defenders sagging off.
Incidentally, this is why I think Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best NBA comp for Zion – despite having nearly directly opposing body types, they each have generational athletic talents that bend the arc of basketball towards the paint in a jump shooting era.
Anyway, it’s possible Zion’s fawning media coverage may continue to sour basketball ‘fans’ on his stardom. At this point, given how his season has gone, I would consider it likely, based on how the college basketball discourse treated Trae Young – and I want to be clear: I think Trae Young is an excellent basketball player, and I want him to succeed. He’s a black man in America, the deck is stacked enough without my speculation. He’s also a talented young player on an Atlanta team that I like, one that will probably draft one of Duke’s Big Three. I want Zion, Cam, or RJ to have a quality point guard to team up with. My criticisms herein are not of him, but of media coverage – the Steph Curry comparisons were premature and facile, coinciding with the height of his powers, and they largely glossed over the flaws in Young’s young game.
There are, of course, some differences in how the later stages of the story can play out for Zion. Duke shouldn’t be coming out on the wrong side of a 7-10 first round March Madness game, and I don’t anticipate a Luka trade scenario killing his draft night high. Whoever drafts Zion won’t dare trade him, and anyone who does try to trade for him won’t have a clearly more polished player in the same class to offer anyway.
Moreover, Zion’s style of play is more consistent. He’s not a streaky shooter or a turnover-prone passer, so it’s less likely his play will falter early in the league.
I hope, for his sake, that the Knicks and Cavs don’t get their hands on him (or any Duke player), since those organizations have the added pressure of needing a savior badly, and have incredibly inept management.
This entire episode, however, has been most confusing for the media—Zion was a social media sensation, not anointed by national media like a Trae Young type. They didn’t bring him into the popular discourse, rather, popular discourse brought him up itself, and demanded coverage. One would be a fool not to cover a folk hero of this stature.
Yet, in a short three months, the people have turned on these companies for daring to cover the brightest star in college basketball, one they served up to them. Excellence attracts resentment, and I imagine a lot of those who reposted Zion highlights wanted him on their team. The fact that he went to Duke could have been the last straw on a camel whose back is only just now starting to give out.
I’m not sure what the takeaways from this are, other than that American media culture is ridiculous and unpredictable, and that so far, Zion hasn’t let stardom or haters get to him, which is good news for everyone.
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