As fans began to stream into Cashman Center two years ago, Albert Hall and other AAU tournament organizers quickly realized they had a problem.
They were concerned they would have to cancel a game featuring Zion Williamson on one team and LaMelo Ball on the other.
Officials decided an hour before the game no one else was allowed inside the nearly 7,000-seat facility, and about 1,500 fans stood outside and peered through the glass doors at the big video screen to see the action on the court. The tipoff was delayed about 15 minutes. LeBron James waited in his car before leaving out of safety concerns.
“That was a crazy event,” said Hall, who produced the tournament. “I saw it coming with Zion a long time ago. I’ve been in this situation before, and I diffused as many things as I could. The kid has a chance to have a special career. He’s humble.”
Hall has known Williamson, the top overall pick of this year’s NBA draft by the New Orleans Pelicans out of Duke, since the player was 14. They now are reunited beginning Friday as the Vegas Summer League begins at the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion. Hall is one of the Summer League’s founders and handles business operations.
And business is good.
The first two days are sold out, and it’s little coincidence that Williamson is playing both nights.
According to Vivid Seats, the average cost of an opening-day ticket on its secondary market is $94, a $5 rise just from Monday, and much higher than the first days of recent Summer Leagues. Last year’s average price was $42.
“There’s no doubt there’s been tremendous buildup around his entry into the league,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “I think those initial moments where he’s playing against NBA competition are highly anticipated. Based on the short career he’s had so far in college, he always seemingly lives up to the moment. I’m also very excited to see him play in Las Vegas.”
With that excitement comes pressure.
Zion is the name of the hill where Jerusalem was built, and Williamson has a nearly biblical task of being asked to revive a New Orleans franchise that has played in the massive shadow of the NFL’s Saints.
“It hasn’t been overwhelming at all because the thing that keeps me grounded is I just always think about the times when it was just me, my stepdad and a basketball on an outdoor court,” Williamson said. “So that’s all I need to keep me grounded.”
Rising up at Duke
Expectations were high when Williamson, who was ESPN’s No. 2-rated recruit, signed with Duke. The top-ranked recruit, RJ Barrett, also signed with the Blue Devils.
As the season began, the 6-foot-7-inch Williamson with his catchy first name and even more eye-catching leaping and dunking abilities not only captured the imagination of Duke fans, but of those who follow college basketball.
Williamson, as much as Duke, became must-watch TV. And when Williamson blew out a shoe and injured an ankle early in a game against North Carolina in front of former president Barack Obama and a national television audience, that turned into a leading sports topic for the following several days. Nike’s stock price even took a temporary billion-dollar drop.
The attention that Williamson received could have caused trouble in the locker room, especially with Barrett.
They instead became good friends, each averaging 22.6 points and combining for 16.5 rebounds per game.
“From start to finish, from Canada all the way through, the weight of the team has been on RJ,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s done it while developing a brotherlike relationship with Zion. In this world, if you have two stars like that on the same team, it’s unusual that the both of them would have the relationship that these two young men have.”
Coach K gave credit to Barrett for not being jealous over all the attention, but Williamson also was instrumental in not flaunting his star status.
Staying low key
Williamson’s parents made sure early on that their son would maintain a proper perspective.
In high school, he wanted to leave Spartanburg (South Carolina) Day School for a more prominent program, but his mother, Sharonda Williamson, insisted he stay. She told her son that if he was good enough, scouts would find him.
When media speculation began after the Pelicans won the draft lottery that Williamson might use his leverage to force a trade, New Orleans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin checked with the parents. They previously promised that Zion would play for the Pelicans, and in the follow-up call his stepfather, Lee Anderson, told Griffin nothing had changed.
“These are people of their word,” Griffin said. “These are people that have been all about family from the very beginning.”
In case there was any doubt, Williamson has embraced the franchise and the city since being drafted. He has talked about New Orleans being “my home” and helped dedicate a court at a local playground.
“To receive the No. 1 pick in the draft is a prize that any sports team would covet, but this one is different,” Pelicans owner Gayle Benson said. “When we won the draft lottery in May and earned the opportunity to select Zion Williamson, we could not have asked for a better player with more potential on the court. More importantly, we could not have hoped for a better person to represent and help lead our franchise into this new chapter.”
Getting it done
Pelicans fans, of course, want more than just an ambassador. They hope Williamson makes the franchise relevant in the city and in the NBA.
The onus is on Williamson to deliver, and he has some doubters about not having a proven outside shot in an increasingly perimeter game.
If his play at Duke is any indication, though, Williamson will be tough to cover inside, and he can defend any position.
Maybe he’s the next NBA star. Maybe he’s a massive disappointment. Maybe he falls somewhere in between.
New Orleans, the Pelicans and, to some extent, the NBA are counting on him.
“You don’t get to coach guys like this very often,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “When you’re lucky enough to have a generational player like that, that you’re going to be able to coach, your relish just the honor of being able to coach a guy like that.”