Sometimes it feels like we don’t really know Zion Williamson yet, just because we’ve seen so little of him. He’s played only 85 games over three seasons, has battled injuries, weight concerns, and did much of his rehab away from the team. The Pelicans knew enough to make a Joel Embiid-style bet on him and gave Zion a five-year, $192.8 million contract extension, but Zion remains a bit of a mystery. To everyone.
Which is why Tres Dean’s story at GQ is so fantastic — it is an insight into Zion and how he sees the world, and how the Japanese manga series Naruto is a big part of that. Big enough that Zion went to Comic-Con to talk to other series fans. Zion, when he plays, laces up Naruto-themed colorways of his Nikes.
Zion uses Naruto as a metaphor to explain where he has been mentally the past year, and where he wants to go now.
I ask if there’s a point in Naruto’s story that he feels is synonymous with where he is right now. His answer is immediate. “It’s when Sasuke was going rogue,” he says, referring to Naruto’s close friend and rival. “All of Naruto’s friends and teammates came to him like, ‘Dude, you’re gonna have to make tough decisions if you really want to be Hokage.’”
There’s a slight pause. “And Naruto, he started hyperventilating because that’s a lot of pressure. He’s just a kid, and that’s his friend, you know? He really cared for him. And all anyone was telling him was that he needed to handle it, to take him down. Nobody ever asked him how he felt…” He answers my next question before I can ask it. “It’s been a lot. I can sit here and explain it, but nobody will really be able to feel it the way I did. My foot was broken and I couldn’t magically heal it. It hurt, because I love the game of basketball. But because of it I was experiencing hate and pain from people I don’t know every day, and it started to wear on me.”
Zion is returning to a different Pelicans team — an interesting and potentially dangerous one. Brandon Ingram is an All-Star and a guy who can be a No.1 offensive option for a stretch. The combination of CJ McCollum in the locker room and coach Willie Green finally has everyone in that locker room — and the organization — committed and pulling the rope in the same direction. There are good role players, more shooting (thank you, McCollum), and just about everything a team needs on paper to be a threat. If one team in the West is poised to make a big leap this season, it’s the Pelicans (who raced up the standings at the end of last season, got through the play-in and into the first round against the Suns).
But it all comes back to Zion. Can he stay healthy? Can he be the guy we’ve seen in those 85 games across three seasons in 70 or so games this season? If so, if he is back to being arguably the best interior scorer in the NBA and a true first option on offense, watch out.
And there is a Naruto storyline to guide Zion through that, too.