SAN FRANCISCO -- A freakish athlete glides down the lane, levitating for what seems like an eternity. He pauses in mid-air to hold the basketball with an extended right hand, an opportune moment for every photographer nestled on the baseline, then throws down a thunderous dunk to the roar of the visiting crowd. With one glance, you can tell this is no ordinary NBA rookie. Beyond the natural athleticism and talent, he has that extra quality that generally accompanies greatness. He's mature beyond his years, seems to always be in the right place at the right time and has already commanded the respect of teammates 10 years his senior.
But it could also apply to New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson, who threw down nearly the exact same dunk during Sunday's 115-101 win over the Warriors at Chase Center, and has elicited nearly the exact same reaction after his first 12 NBA games.
Before you roll your eyes in disgust, we're not here to speculate whether Williamson, who has scored 20 points or more in 10 of his first 12 games, and 25 or more in each of his last four, will one day be as good as James. The odds certainly say he won't, since LeBron is -- under even the most stringent scrutiny -- at least a top-three player in NBA history, and making his way toward the top spot with each gracefully passing year. That being said, despite drastically different games and styles of play, there are similarities between James and Williamson that simply cannot be avoided.
It's safe to say that Williamson is the most exciting rookie since James, and already one of the most beloved among fans.
"I don't even know how to describe it, really. I've been around a lot of guys and been in this league for a lot of things, but just everywhere we go -- every hotel, every arena, every restaurant -- they want to see him," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. "And I think because he's very approachable, very accessible -- you know, he doesn't mind, he'll stop and try to sign autographs, but obviously he can't do that every single time, but he's just a good kid. He's a good kid and he's enjoying himself."
Then there's the size, strength and athleticism. LeBron entered the league at 18 years old, and fans marveled at his NBA-ready body -- a full 6-foot-8 with guard skills, at a chiseled 240 pounds. If you were going to build a professional basketball player in lab, their dimensions would probably come out looking a lot like LeBron James.
But Zion is a different beast, coming into the league as a 19-year-old at an unheard of 284 pounds packed into a 6-foot-6 frame. His physique is not sculpted like a bodybuilder's, but more akin to a World's Strongest Man competitor -- not overly defined but not flabby, just big and strong in the truest sense of the words. People at that size shouldn't be able to jump as high or move as quickly as Williamson does, and it's hard to think of a player since James who has come into the league more physically ready with that level of skill. Just look at what he's doing to fully grown men on a nightly basis in his first NBA season:
"He's such a dynamic player. I just kind of marvel at what he's doing -- the way he attacks and scores," said Pelicans guard JJ Redick. "It looks easy at times."
Williamson's strength, size and athleticism stand out when you watch him play -- it's simply breathtaking -- but his basketball IQ and feel for the game separate him from other elite athletes who enter the league. The Pelicans have a net rating of plus-16.8 with Zion on the court as opposed to when he's off -- you don't get a mind-blowing figure like that if you're just trying to bully opponents and dunk every possession.
"He's a very smart player. I can give you 20 examples, but to me it's just to have a good feel for the game and understand situations," Gentry said. "For him it's never about scoring. We don't run a whole lot of plays for him, directed at him. But I think he's figured out, and our guys have figured out, where he likes the ball and in the flow of the offense and what we're doing, they've found a way to get him the ball in positions where he can be very effective."
When asked about Williamson's talent beyond his natural athletic gifts, coaches and teammates immediately bring up his passing -- an obvious elite skill of LeBron's, bolstered by an off-the-charts basketball IQ. Before and after the Pelicans' win over the Warriors, Williamson's passing was lauded by both Gentry and Golden State coach Steve Kerr, along with Pelicans players Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, who both also played with James with the Lakers. And that was just in a matter of hours.
Williamson's assist numbers don't jump off the page, but that's because he's often passing out of a double-team or in traffic, which forces rotations that eventually lead to an open shot, not necessarily from the player he passed the ball to. Those are winning plays that lead to the astronomical net rating that Williamson boasts. But there have also been some next-level assists that show anticipation and touch, suggesting the assists will rise as his career progresses.
"I like his passing," Kerr said. "I've seen him drawing a lot of attention because of his strength and his explosiveness near the basket. Any time people are sending double teams at him, it seems like he's just kicking the ball back out to the perimeter. So he looks like he really knows how to play, and very unselfish. Yeah, he's a handful."
Oftentimes with such skill comes a unique paralysis -- you have so many ways to dissect a defender that you become hesitant and cerebral rather than instinctual. Williamson, however, has displayed an early ability to make the correct reads quickly. Teammate Jrue Holiday says Williamson has a knack for knowing when to overpower smaller defenders, and when to out-quick bigger ones.
Another common thread between Williamson and James is the immediate respect they've earned from their teammates and players around the league. At halftime of Sunday's game, the Pelicans trailed the last-place Warriors by 10 points, after putting up just 17 points in the second quarter. Williamson, who says he's generally quiet but speaks up when necessary, felt it was time to say a few words to his teammates.
"It was just one of those things where you just kind of say, 'Yo, we just gotta play with more energy. We're much better than this. We're not playing like ourselves. We're not moving the ball. We're just not ourselves, we've gotta just be better,' " Williamson said after the game.
Ingram wasn't in the locker room for Williamson's address, but he said he'd never heard of a 19-year-old stepping up to speak to a room full of veterans before. Holiday, who did hear the message, said it took on extra meaning because of the example Williamson sets on the court.
"Just to have the confidence to be able to say that, to be one of the youngest on the team and come out here, but recognize it and show, for people to see you're not playing hard enough," Holiday said. "It means a lot. It means a lot coming from him. Again, just because he shows it. He goes out there and plays as hard as he can."
When Williamson takes on James for the first time in his career at Staples Center on Tuesday night, we'll see the current and future faces of the NBA going head-to-head on national TV. Williamson gave the diplomatic response, saying he's not thinking about the individual matchup, but rather just trying to get the win as the Pelicans continue to battle for a playoff spot. But he didn't hesitate to express his admiration for LeBron, who made his NBA debut when Zion was 3 years old.
"I used to watch him all the time -- especially when he was in Cleveland the first time," Williamson said of James. "He was just an incredible player to watch. He always held his own and sometimes I think he doesn't get the respect he deserves, but that's not for me to decide."
Zion himself is certainly getting respect early on in his career. Before he even entered the league, LeBron talked about Zion's "infectious" energy. But while it's tempting to crown Williamson based on his first 12 NBA games, we must remember to be patient. He said he's still getting used to the jam-packed schedule and travel associated with pro basketball, while working himself back from the injury that pushed his debut to late January. It's going to take hard work, strong coaching and a fair amount of good fortune for Williamson to reach James' status, but the foundation is there. Now all we can do is wait and watch, as we try our best to pick our jaws up from off the floor.
"I feel like I get more comfortable as the games go on," Williamson said. "I'm still a rookie, there's a lot to learn -- with fouls, how to keep your head mentally into the game even when you're down 15, 13. And just have fun, to be honest. If I'm not having fun, then something's wrong."