Zion Williamson has had an incredible amount of hype ever since he went viral in high school for his thunderous dunks and immense athletic potential. He was the talk of college basketball during his lone year at Duke. Accidentally breaking through his own shoe was even a national news story. Questions about his NBA readiness, his weight, and his conditioning dominated draft coverage. The dichotomy between his reliable inside scoring and his troubling knee issues was constantly discussed during his rookie year. There were claims that the NBA Bubble’s format was created just to give Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans a shot at the playoffs. So is it even possible to say that Williamson is having an underrated sophomore season, given the attention he typically commands? Yes. Absolutely.
Zion Williamson Shining in Sophomore Season; Flying Under the Radar
Lack of Front-Page Attention
In 24 games last season, Williamson averaged 22.5 points per game in just 27.8 minutes a contest. Quite an impressive mark for a rookie whose calling card has solely been being a freak of nature. Many in the media advocated for him to win Rookie of the Year, however, it went to Ja Morant (rightfully so). Yet coming into this season, the Pelicans and Williamson were an afterthought. There’s the return of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The Los Angeles Lakers’ quest for back-to-back titles. The James Harden saga, and many more storylines. It seemed as though Williamson faded from the spotlight a bit, overtaken by the likes of Luka Doncic and LaMelo Ball.
It’s also worth noting that 25 games into this season, the Pelicans sit at 11-14. They’re on the outside looking in at a stacked Western Conference. They wouldn’t even qualify for the play-in games if the season were to end today, let alone the playoffs. Combine a lack of team success with media fatigue and playing for a small-market franchise, and you get the formula that equals why Williamson’s season is underrated.
Increase in Production
Now, you can’t just go around saying a player is underrated without the on-court production to back it up. Sure Williamson has faded about from the spotlight, but that happens to all sorts of players. The difference is that instead of Williamson’s game fading as well, it’s improving.
For as talented as he is, there’s been a lot of knocks against his game. “He can only score in the paint.” “He’s not durable.” “His game isn’t refined.” Instead of giving in to those criticisms and trying to amend his game, Williamson has doubled-down on his strengths and has blossomed as a result. This feels like a perfect time to compare this season to last season, as Williamson played 24 games last year, and has played 24 games this season as of today.
His minutes per game have jumped from 27.8 to 32.6. His field goal percentage has gone from 58% up to 61%. He’s shooting fewer threes and more twos per game, aiding in his points per game increasing from 22.5 to 24.3. His rebounds, assists, free throw percentage, steals, and blocks are up across the board and he is averaging fewer turnovers per game. He has, in essence, improved in every facet of the game. Yet most of the talk around the Pelicans has to do with…Lonzo Ball’s trade availability?
All-Star and Beyond
Williamson currently sits at 6th among fan voting for forwards in the Western Conference. Fan voting is not a be-all-end-all, but it’s safe to say Williamson should be an All-Star this season. As the season has progressed, the re-emergence of Stephen Curry, the downfall of the Washington Wizards, and the hot start of the Utah Jazz have usurped the headlines even further from Williamson and the struggling Pelicans.
Last night, the country was reacquainted with Williamson’s talent. He went 14/15 from the field with 36 points against the Dallas Mavericks. Yet the main talk of that game was not Williamson; rather it was Luka Doncic, who went for 46-8-12 in a winning effort.
Call it fast-moving media fatigue, call it playing in a small market, call it whatever. One of the NBA’s brightest young stars has taken an impressive leap in his game, and nobody seems to have noticed. The NBA’s once-new Golden Boy has taken a backseat in coverage while climbing into the front seat on his team. So is Zion Williamson having an underrated sophomore season? I think all signs point to yes.
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