Follow the journeys of Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett and more as they begin their pro careers on NBA Rooks, exclusively on ESPN+.

NBA Rooks on ESPN+ gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the phenomenon that is Zion Williamson. But for Zion, the fanfare was at an all-time high before he even stepped foot on an NBA court. Go back and rewatch a clip of a Zion Williamson dunk. Now, watch it another time and look closely at the faces of everyone in the crowd. Pay attention to the looks of astonishment, all the wide-eyes, the jaws that drop, the excitement that takes over some people, who without even realizing it, find themselves jumping with him. If reactions are caused by two forces colliding, then this is the Zion effect every time he collides with the rim. It’s this act of athleticism and power that has propelled him to become one of the most electrifying players of this generation. 

Looking back, Zion was destined for legacy the minute he went viral at the age of fifteen for a posterizing dunk that caught the attention of the world (go back and watch that video, too). It’s one thing to see someone so young play with that much athleticism and talent, it’s another to watch them get bigger, stronger, jump higher and, amidst doubts, prove the hype to be true. 

Throughout his high school career at Spartanburg, Zion exceeded expectations. The fifteen year old phenom went on to average 36.8 points, 13 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2.5 blocks per game as a junior, proving that there was efficiency amongst the power. He finished 42 points and 16 rebounds against Cardinal Newman High School, and dropped 50 points in a win against Proviso East High School. Steph Curry caught notice of his game, and Drake wore his jersey in a picture he posted on the ‘gram. 

And with the hype, and the numbers, came the inevitable comparisons. Questions of, could he be the next—? That summer, we put the phenom on the cover of SLAM 210, and even expressed our own curiosity about whether we had seen a player like him before: He’s a lefty with the handles of a point guard and the dunking ability of…well, nobody that’s come along yet. Maybe Vince Carter? Dr. J? Dominique Wilkins? A slightly less springy, definitively more powerful version of Zach LaVine? It’s tough to put into context something that is arriving for the first time.

Yet, it’s fair to say that Zion became his own entity once took his talents to Durham, North Carolina for his freshman season at Duke. Some saw the next so-and-so, while Zion showed the world that he was more than just a high school phenom and must-see dunker. 

He proved his playmaking ability as a tremendous finisher around the rim and passer; proving he had a high basketball IQ amongst the power. He was a scary sight on the defensive end of the floor with his ability to block shots and rebound with so much ease, no one else stood a chance. That season, Zion racked up ACC Player of the Week and Freshman of the Week awards on a nearly-consistent weekly basis, and broke records previously held by former Duke freshman, from Marvin Bagley’s scoring record (which he and Barett both set), to a single game points-record that was held by both Bagley and J.J. 

His performances that season had every hoop fan excited about what he’d do next in the League. In a game against Clemson, Zion’s 360 dunk even had legendary ESPN announcer Dick Vitale feelin’ ready for the dunk contest. 


Yet, a Grade 1 knee sprain against North Carolina ignited a different type of chatter. Opinions flared over whether he should continue playing, or just sit out the rest of the season. 

When he did return in March for the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, Zion hooped with a vengeance. He dropped 29 points in a win against Syracuse, shooting a perfect 13-of-13 from the field. Then, he scored 31 points in a win over North Carolina, and another 21 against Florida State. He became the sixth Duke Freshman to win ACC Tournament MVP. 

While Duke ended up losing to Michigan State in the Elite 8, Zion would take his talents to the biggest stage yet. After getting selected as the No.1 pick by the Pelicans, it didn’t take long for him to start adding to his own NBA highlight reel: in his summer league debut on ESPN, with Lebron James in attendance, he showcased the very same power and athleticism that caught the world’s amazement when he ripped the ball right out of Knox’s hands and finished with a massive dunk. Then, the news broke that he had suffered a bruised left knee injury, only played for nine minutes before suffering a bruised left knee injury. Critics chimed in about his body and whether he was injury-prone: they brought up his injury at Duke, and the knee bruise he had in high school. 

When you’re a once-in-a-generation type of player, you tend to cause a lot of conversation. 

“I did hear those things,” Zion admitted to SLAM going into the Orlando Bubble. “My mom taught me to accept the things I cannot change, and to change the things I can and move on. So, I can’t tell them what they can think or they can’t think. Not everybody is going to agree with what you do or like my body make-up or how you play the game. It’s their opinion and that’s fine. I’m my own person. So, when it comes to worrying about things like that, I don’t.”

You can’t control the past, but you can decide what kind of future you want. Before he’d become an NBA All-Star and average career-highs this season, Zion, in his own words, made it clear that if we wanted to see what he’d do next, we would just have to tune in. 

 Stream NBA Rooks exclusively on ESPN+.

Follow the journeys of Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett and more as they begin their pro careers on NBA Rooks, exclusively on ESPN+.



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