Zion Williamson and LeBron James duelled for the first time this week. The Los Angeles Lakers won the game and James took over, scoring a season-high 40 points.
Williamson has often been referred to as the most exciting rookie since LeBron. Their games aren’t identical, though they have plenty in common. They are freakish athletes; they entered the league with the hopes of a franchise on their shoulders.
James reminds us of his athleticism every night, a brutal dunk on Josh Hart against the Pelicans was extraordinary for any player, let alone a 35-year-old. Williamson is an impossible matchup, battering weaker players and far too mobile for the traditional seven-foot monsters that guard the rim.
A 19-year-old and 35-year-old don’t usually have too much in common. Williamson’s NBA journey is just beginning, James is closer to retirement than his rookie season, despite how he defies ageing curves. They are the two biggest names in the NBA right now, and both are looking to chase down fellow stars for awards in the closing weeks of the season.
Despite not making his debut until January, Zion is well in the Rookie of the Year race, just behind Ja Morant. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the strong favourite for NBA MVP, with LeBron is closest challenger.
This weekend, it’ll be Zion/LeBron II as the Pelicans and Lakers promptly meet again (odds on this one will go up at https://www.sportsbettingdime.com/nba/odds/ the night before the game). The game itself may not mean a great deal for the Lakers, as they’re comfortably in first in the West, while the Pelicans have a lot of winnable games left on their schedule as they pursue the Grizzlies for eighth place.
It is significant for the LeBron and Zion rematch, and it is relevant for Anthony Davis, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball, who all face their former teams.
Davis’ trade has linked the Pels and Lakers for the foreseeable future. The draft lottery fell New Orleans’ way, and it changed their future. The short, medium and long-term of the Pelicans relies on Williamson.
James’ broad shoulders had to deal with a similar burden at his hometown Cavaliers. He has developed into one of sport’s great leaders.
Very few people on the planet can relate to what Zion is going through right now. He is followed to restaurants, his name is Googled as much as any other, and TV show talking heads are discussing how he walks. It is a spotlight only a handful have ever had to deal with, a forensic analysis of every move that requires supreme mental strength to shrug off.
Williamson’s on-court play hasn’t disappointed. His NBA rollercoaster is just beginning, however, and this Sunday he gets a second chance to face LeBron James, the man who was the Zion of the noughties, and has wrestled through the hype, the criticism and the intense pressure to become one of, or perhaps the, greatest basketball players in history.
Comparing anyone to James is an unfair marker. With Zion, though, it doesn’t feel so absurd. He has that talent, those physical gifts, to be a dominating force for a decade or more.
Successor to the throne might be premature, but along with Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and a few others, Williamson will be the face of the league through the 2020s and maybe beyond. NBA fans should treasure every LeBron versus Zion clash.