The Zion Williamson era begins tomorrow night against the Spurs

Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans looks on during a pre-season game against the San Antonio Spurs. (Photos by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans looks on during a pre-season game against the San Antonio Spurs. (Photos by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Zion Williamson will make his NBA debut against the San Antonio Spurs tomorrow night in one of the most highly anticipated nights of the season.

NBA drafts are typically full of over-exaggeration. Every promising draftee receives those comparisons calling them the “next someone”. Most of them fail to live up to the hype. From Andrew Wiggins being crowned Maple Jordan to Thon Maker being compared to Kevin Durant, most draft day comparisons are just mindless hyperbole. Most of them. Tomorrow night the San Antonio Spurs will face a rare player who deserves every bit of hype he’s received.

It’s not a stretch to say that we have never seen a basketball player quite like Zion Williamson. He’s entering the league as the most highly anticipated rookie since LeBron James. The postponement of his NBA debut has only further served to increase the anticipation for his emergence tomorrow night against the Spurs.

According to Bleacher Report’s Tyler Conway, Zion will be in the Pelicans starting lineup tomorrow night and will be operating without a minute restriction. That’s great news for New Orleans and a whole mess of problems for the Spurs. Zion averaged 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.3 assists while shooting 71.4 percent in his preseason games. How the Spurs, who have struggled mightily against even average NBA teams, go about defending him is anyone’s guess.

This isn’t the first time that Gregg Popovich has had to come up with ways to defend the transcendent rookie. Zion recorded his only double-double of the preseason in an October 13th performance in San Antonio.

The challenge that faced the Spurs in that game, and the one they’ll face every time they play the Pelicans for the foreseeable future, is that Zion is simply too fast for their bigs and too strong for their wings. His combination of speed, strength, and leaping ability put every single defender he faces at a serious disadvantage.

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Zion is built like an industrial refrigerator with rockets attached to the base. In a story with Baxter Holmes of ESPN, Pelicans GM David Griffin revealed that Williamson gained eight pounds of pure muscle during an off-season week of heavy lifting. With all due respect to Rudy Gay and DeMarre Carroll, I don’t know if either one of them has the strength to hold back Williamson if he wants to rampage to the rim.

LaMarcus Aldridge might have the strength to go toe to toe with the Pelicans rookie but he’s lost a step and would be left in the dust as Williamson used his speed and length to contort around him. The Spurs best bet will probably be Jakob Poeltl. He’s the quickest of the Spurs big men and also the best defender. He’s got the length to recover if Zion gets past him, which he almost certainly will do a few times. It will be a while before NBA teams figure out the best way to defend Zion, the Spurs are just serving as the regular season guinea pigs.

One thing that San Antonio will have to focus on is hustling back on defense in order to limit the Pelicans’ chances for wide-open fast-break dunks. Aldridge’s transition to more of a three-point shooter has done wonders for the Spurs offense but it could also create a few extra risks.

Aldridge has spent more and more time in the corners or at the top of the key since the long ball became a bigger part of his game. This is great for the Spurs spacing, it opens up easier lanes for DeMar DeRozan to do what he does best. But it’s also pushing Aldridge, and his defender, closer to the opposing basket.

Look for the Pelicans to use Zion to defend Aldridge on the perimeter and then encourage him to take off as soon as the ball leaves LaMarcus’s hands. New Orleans has a solid rebounding guard in Lonzo Ball and a rangy forward in Brandon Ingram. Both of these guys are more than capable of throwing a long outlet pass as well.

If Zion is heading the other way as soon as Aldridge shoots the ball, LaMarcus has no chance of catching him. At that point, its just a question of wheater or not the Spurs can prevent the Pelicans from pulling down a defensive rebound and sending a long pass the other way for a highlight reel dunk from Zion.

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With Ja Morant in Memphis and Zion in New Orleans, the San Antonio Spurs have suddenly found themselves in a division with two of the most exciting rookies in recent memory. Every game against these two, starting tomorrow night, is must-see TV. The Spurs get their chance to spoil Zion’s NBA debut tomorrow night at 8:30 pm CT on ESPN.