‘Damn straight the NBA needs him’: Why Zion Williamson’s debut is so important

NEW YORK — It’s a rim-shaking sight, watching a sweat-soaked Zion Williamson throw down windmill dunk after windmill dunk some three hours before the New Orleans Pelicans are scheduled to face the Knicks on Friday.

Aside from arena workers and team personnel who assist Williamson in his workouts, hardly anyone sees him put in the extra preparation, the final steps before the Next Big Thing plays in his first NBA game, which is expected to be Jan. 22 in New Orleans against the San Antonio Spurs.

He’s half-man, half-Loch Ness Monster.

So many NBA stars and bankable commodities are on the sidelines and sporting their latest trendy wardrobe choices — an unexpected development from an injury-filled season.

But Williamson’s absence has arguably been the biggest, and the league needs him to step off the sidelines and onto the floor.

And fast.

Television ratings are sagging to start the season, and the reasons are hard to pinpoint. It could be the confusing China situation, one the NBA fumbled in the preseason. It could be cyclical. It could be general fatigue from a nearly year-round season.

But there’s no denying that Williamson is a big piece of the NBA’s present and future.

“I think so. The league does need him,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry told Yahoo Sports. “Because he's a great personality, a great feel for the game. And he's a different kind of player. Kind of like Luka [Doncic], basically. They bring an element to the game you don't see in other guys.”

Williamson, like Doncic, is a new face of Jordan Brand, a potential magnetic star for the shoe company to relaunch for the next generation. He’s the cornerstone for basketball in New Orleans, the biggest piece Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin hopes to build around for the next decade.

Pelicans forward Zion Williamson will make his NBA debut on Jan. 22. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For all of his dynamite dunks and backyard bully plays that he’s displayed while making his way to the national consciousness, the first thing that pops up on an internet search after “Zion Williamson” is the word “injury.”

A strong start to the preseason was halted by surgery on his right knee (meniscus) in October, and the Pelicans have been cautious with the timeline surrounding his potential return, preferring to look at the big picture.

“He wants to play. In those situations, you have to protect a guy from himself,” Gentry told Yahoo Sports. “This has been his lifelong goal. We understand what it is, but I told him we have your best interests at hand. We're not gonna do anything [that’s a] risk, put you in harm’s way. We gotta be patient enough to understand that.”

It’s not what the NBA expected for Zion’s rookie year. The league has to prepare for a post-LeBron world, and Williamson is expected to be a lead attraction.

According to a league official who requested anonymity, in 22 of the first 35 national TV games (ESPN, ABC, TNT), at least one star was missing from the game (63 percent). Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson count as stars.

So does Zion Williamson.

The total has risen some, but as of Thursday it’s at 50 percent — still a whopping number of games missing stars.

“The Pelicans games were put on almost exclusively because of him,” the official told Yahoo Sports. “So his absence hurt us big time because they were on [national TV] so much early, and it hurt the spotlight on those games.”

A front-office executive involved with the NBA for three decades echoed those sentiments.

“I’ve never seen so much attention put from the league onto a player so early,” he said. “Damn straight the NBA needs him.”

While he’s still a raw talent with plenty of room to grow, Zion is a box-office commodity.

“He’s not a max player [yet], but he’s a max entertainer,” an Eastern Conference executive told Yahoo Sports.

“As big as he is on the basketball side, with the season tickets they’ve sold, their marketing, their grassroots marketing, he’s bigger on the business side. He changes the perception of the franchise. Between drafting him and hiring David Griffin, they’ve changed their perception. They’re a national franchise now, businesses will be attracted to them.”

Gentry has been party to this before. He coached Grant Hill during the height of his popularity — first as an assistant under Doug Collins in Detroit and later as the Pistons’ head coach. Hill was tabbed as the “Next Jordan” and even led the NBA in All-Star voting the year Jordan’s Bulls won 72 games in 1996.

Hill had his own sneaker line with Fila, and endorsements with McDonald’s and Sprite, among others. Like Williamson, he came from Duke, possessing a national pedigree and a game to match.

But Gentry said that’s where the comparisons end.

“It’s a much higher degree [now],” Gentry told Yahoo Sports. “From shootaround, we get off the bus, there’s people. We get back on the bus to go to the game, and there's hundreds of people there who just wanna get a glimpse of him, just wanna see him.”

Without a hint of arrogance or overstatement, Gentry says the attention around Williamson exceeds the other players “other than LeBron James.”

Hill suffered a severe ankle injury six years into his career that robbed him of his prime, turning him into one of the biggest what-ifs in NBA history.

With the benefit of hindsight and knowing Williamson wouldn’t touch the floor halfway through his rookie year, the executives reached by Yahoo Sports had mixed feelings on the thought of taking Williamson No. 1 all over again.

“I wouldn’t have taken him No. 1 even back then,” a Western Conference general manager said. “I would’ve taken Ja [Morant] or traded back to pick up as many picks as I could.”

“I’d definitely still take him first, wouldn’t you?” an Eastern Conference executive responded.

“Yeah, when you consider everything he brings, I’m still picking him first,” another Eastern Conference general manager said, pointing out there’s no other sure-fire superstar to be had.

Between the right knee sprain he suffered at Duke last year when his shoe gave out and the injury from this preseason, the fears about his health haven’t been quelled.

“He’s definitely unique. Unique talent, special kid. Matchup problem,” the Western Conference GM told Yahoo Sports. “Biggest thing is health. Three hundred pounds of health and torque. What makes him unique is athleticism, not necessarily skill.”

It’s easy to see Williamson’s popularity across NBA arenas. He routinely stops to sign autographs and pose for photos on his way to the locker room.

Gentry feels his player is built for the attention, the pressure and the anticipation.

“It’s good for our game,” he said. “What it says is the league is in really good shape. LeBron is an older player, he's still the best player in the league, I think, and still has all the attention. Ja Morant, I think people are starting to feel that way about him, Luka and guys like that.”

And guys like Zion.

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