The 2019 NBA Draft occurred on Friday, beginning around 4 p.m. local time. It was held in New York City and was one of the most anticipated sporting events this year due to a select few athletes involved, the most significant being 18-year-old Zion Williamson.
If you know basketball, you know who Williamson is. Scratch that, if you’ve heard of basketball, you know who he is. One more time, if you’re vaguely aware of sports in general, particularly any that involve an orange inflated leather ball, you have undoubtedly heard his name. I won’t bother droning on about his athletic gifts and performances: His height is 6’7”, his weight is 285 pounds and his vertical jump is officially listed at 40.5” but is reportedly as high as 44”. How is this possible? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else, but glad we covered that he’s an incredibly gifted athlete.
Since he first appeared on the radar of collegiate and professional basketball programs, largely through the Internet fanbase he gained from highlight videos of his jaw-dropping dunks in high school, Williamson has drawn comparisons to a vast array of basketball greats. The more obvious and opinionated ones are Michael Jordan and LeBron James, which given their relative position similarity and court dominance at both ends of the court, isn’t surprising. The less popular but more accurate comparisons are Charles Barkley and Larry Johnson, for their similar physical builds and subsequent playstyles.
Comparisons are fun, and a way for fans to engage with one another across decades of their respective sport. How does Messi compare to Pelé, how does Brady compare to Montana? So on and so forth the conversations go until we exhaust ourselves (if such an end is possible). These discussions can bring with them an air of expectation and criticism, especially when they’re had prior to the end of one subject’s career. The most glaring example of this comes with LeBron James who, since he was a mere 15 years old, has had his gameplay perceived by millions of basketball fans as a comparison to Michael Jordan. I don’t mean to defend James, especially given he has embraced nicknames such as “The Chosen One” and “King James” throughout his career, but rather strive to illustrate a point through his treatment.
The expectations set on James’ shoulders from the day he first stepped onto an NBA court were impossibly high; Cleveland wanted championships, analysts wanted impressive statistics and fans everywhere wanted a display that lived up to the hype. It’s an incredibly bizarre, hopelessly ignorant cycle that the sports media and fans commit themselves to: Generate unprecedented hype around a player based on their impressive performances, then use that hype as a basis for judgment when they do or do not perform. The basis is arbitrary, the definition of “hype” and whether one lives up to it left unwritten.
As a result, James’ career has been scrutinized as underachieving and somewhat disappointing, despite the record-breaking numbers he’s recorded and championships he has won. Every season, every game, every aspect of his play was filtered through expectations of how Jordan would perform. Yes, he has still generated millions of fans, hundreds of millions of dollars and a large consensus as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. That isn’t being overlooked, but to say his career wasn’t met with an unfair amount of disregard or dismissal, simply because it didn’t hold up to the pinnacle of basketball performance, is an exercise in ignorance.
With that, we arrive back at Williamson. From his first possession, his first basket, his first game and the subsequent season, Williamson will be judged by millions based on how he compares to those that came before him. It won’t be fair, it won’t be defined, but it will be done. Some will go so far as to insult or degrade him as a player simply because he didn’t meet what they considered, or had been told to consider, great play. They will forget that less than two years prior, this was a high school kid worrying about his homework, and not an athlete on his way to becoming the face of the NBA. His successes and failures will be used to slot him into a category of players and assign him a ranking that will adjust overtime. It’s true that his gameplay will be enjoyed time and again for its absurd displays of athleticism, but with each praise a trickle of critique and comparison will come.
He’s not going to be the next LeBron James, the next Michael Jordan, the next Charles Barkley. He’s going to be Zion Williamson, just as any other player is going to be themselves. Enjoy him for what he is, not what he compares to.