In late January, Zion Williamson, the 6’6”, 285-pound phenom out of Duke, made his NBA debut for the New Orleans Pelicans after a series of viral earth-shattering dunks that thrilled fans beyond the NCAA. Over his first few NBA games, he’s delivered on the transformative promise that made him the No. 1 draft pick in 2019. But his already mythic career arc might as well have started in the fourth quarter of Tuesday night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, arguably the best player on the planet, had just come down with a routine rebound off a miss. Suddenly, he didn’t have it. Williamson, whose most underrated gift is his synaptic hand-eye coordination, had slid right in behind Antetokounmpo and gripped the ball just as Giannis had begun bringing it above his head. Zion ripped it away cleanly, treating the reigning MVP, who stands at 6’11” and weighs 242 pounds, like a runt. Zion is still only 19 years old.
These are the show-stealing moments—a gallery of dunks, blocks, steals, and rebounds—that have fueled Zion’s fame ever since he was a junior in high school, demonstrating seemingly inhuman feats of power, speed, and grace, from a person whose size suggests he’s in the wrong sport. To marvel at Zion’s gifts is to marvel at the amount of kinetic energy generated from something truly immense; something that has no business moving in the way it does. It was true in high school. It was true at Duke. It remains true in the NBA. Williamson can turn any moment of a game into a revelation or, more specifically, a self-realization.
The most iconic play of his early basketball career might be the Block, made almost exactly one year ago as a Duke freshman, against Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter, now a fellow NBA rookie. In a pivotal play near the end of the game, Williamson launched himself toward Hunter with his arm stretched outward and spiked a 3-point shot attempted more than 15 feet away from him. It was one of the most stunning defensive plays I’d ever seen. It happened on the fly, but he made it look routine.
Through his first seven games, Williamson is well on track to becoming the player who was promised. He is smart, efficient, and productive. In open space, he is an airborne nightmare who also happens to have uncanny vision; in tight quarters, he bulldozes defenders who are still adjusting to his specific center of gravity. The dunks and blocks are cornerstones to his dominant, swaggering ethos, but over the past week, I’ve found myself marveling at the smaller details of his game that sometimes feel altogether new to the sport.
In a January game against the Celtics, Zion effectively started a post-up move from just inside the 3-point line by swiveling his body into Marcus Smart, one of the most versatile defenders in the league, while continuing to churn his steps at a full sprint.
It’s the small details that add clarity to Zion’s obvious wow factor; sometimes they’re more jaw-dropping than the actual result of the play. With more than three minutes remaining in the second quarter of Tuesday’s Bucks game, Lonzo Ball lofted an outlet pass to Zion that appeared destined to become a turnover. Spatially, it was far closer to the Bucks’ Pat Connaughton, who was charging at full speed toward Williamson. But then Zion happened. As the two players converged, Zion’s quick and powerful hands tipped the ball 15 feet in the air. Then he took a few steps—the fastest steps you will ever see a 285-pound man take—to catch up with the trajectory of the ball. It was baseball; it was Globetrotters-esque. He missed his unconventional self-alleyoop, but his teammate scored on a follow-up dunk. It won’t get nearly as much attention as Zion ripping the ball away from Giannis, but it was a stunning display of athleticism all the same.
That viral feat of strength against Giannis was, after all, just a sliver of his overall performance—truth be told, he had the worst shooting night of his early NBA career, struggling against Antetokounmpo’s length and surprising strength around the basket. Zion may break the mold of what a 19-year-old growing into his body looks like, but he’s still at the mercy of the 25-year-old who has learned what it takes to become the best player in the world. These checks to Zion Williamson’s ascent are important, though: The thrill of Zion, to this point, has been captured in the boundlessness of his own athletic discovery. Now there are obstacles that can’t simply be jumped over. So begins a new phase in this journey with Zion, an ongoing education into what’s possible.
Danny Chau is a writer and editor, previously of Grantland and The Ringer.