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Year None: Zion Williamson

The 2019-2020 NBA season came to an abrupt halt on March 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the season effectively three-quarters of the way through, many storylines, records-to-be, and developing comebacks were left in the lurch; all the bizarre, beautiful, and too-absorbing minutiae of the league halted. This is a look back at the most compelling of those suspended narratives in an attempt to figure out what could have been while reconciling, maybe wrenchingly, that however the season concludes, this will be a year in basketball that never fully happened. Welcome to Year None.

Zion Williamson’s professional basketball career has been interrupted, to no end, by acts of god. Natural and global disasters that ebb and flow around his high points, Achilles’ heel-style injuries around the low. Of all the overlarge hats handed to players on NBA Draft night, Williamson’s could not have sat awkwardly on his head fast enough for him, Adam Silver, or anyone watching, but since it did, the rookie is yet to play a continuous stretch of the game he was set to take over.

Summer League 2019, a Friday evening in early July. The parking lot of UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center fills and people appear to float across pavement flooded with lifting heat that eddies up to their knees, desert sun tumbling into the throbbing lights of the Las Vegas Strip three gargantuan blocks of sage scrub, airfield, and motels over. They are crackling as they enter the arena, the cold conditioned air sloughs the remnants of heat from their shoulders, but there’s another thing bearing down that won’t budge: the voltaic spark of anticipation. Zion, the name already shorthand for a kind of jolting hope, starts in whispers and ends with thousands chanting it at an empty court, conjuring up the smirking face they know is about to slip from the dark of the tunnel.

He played south of nine minutes before he bashed his right knee against Kadeem Allen’s. An impact, if you stretch it out right in the dramatic range of memory, that serves as the foreshock for what was coming — a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that rumbled right out of the Mojave and caused the scoreboard and speaker stacks to sway like pendulums. Williamson was watching from the bench, vibrations humming through the blood pooling in his bruising knee, as the court was cleared of players and all those people who had him on their lips seconds before, demanding We Want Zion, went streaming up the stairwells toward the exits.

In the days, and then remainder of summer that followed, it seemed less like Williamson had hurt himself than it took an earthquake to stop him. He was already something of a legend coming into the league and his false start of a debut only served to turn the narrative around him even more effusive. He was presented as Apollo in potential, but more surreptitiously accurate is how the deity ruled over prophecy, of which Williamson can’t seem to get clear from. A David and Goliath, him against his own reputation cast like a shadow on a wall, ten stories tall and growing.

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What happened in the desert came as an aftershock in the Pelicans preseason, not registering on the Richter scale but bound to bone and flinching muscle memory. Williamson eventually needed knee surgery and was sidelined until Jan. 22, when he finally made his NBA debut exactly three months from the 2019-20 season start. He did it against the Spurs, the team that saw him exit the preseason. Coincidence or prophecy, however you’d rule it, the parable of Zion continued to run interference.

There isn’t another player whose bad luck exists in such perfect counterbalance to the league’s own good. People tune in to watch the Pelicans when Williamson takes the floor. Late January in any regular season is a slog, the momentum that carried the season at its start has tapered along with the memories of twelve hours of languid, frantically festive Christmas Day basketball. But this year, Williamson’s return was something of a North Star. We all had a week to churn ourselves into a frenzy that felt even more heightened than the two times before, and whether you want to slice it along idioms or not, the third time was the charm.

Zion Williamson plays basketball very frankly. Other ways to describe his game include “frankly upsetting,” “frankly unbelievable,” and “frankly bending the known laws of physics, but bluntly, direct.” His cues — to his teammates, opposing players, the audience — are candid. In his regular season debut, he lay in wait until the start of the fourth. Then, extending and somehow extending himself once more while mid-air, clearing Jakob Poeltl’s 7-foot frame, Williamson windmilled the game toward himself by tipping a rebound down and out of the atmosphere level with the backboard. This, he seemed to say, is mine now.

He was always in plain sight. He is not a player who can slip into the paint unseen, who can weave his way open into an outside corner. He will simply put himself somewhere and understand the space his frame allows him to hold. One of the most misleading aspects of Williamson’s game, and frustrating for opposing players, is that it can appear slow in how straightforward it is. Like an insult that will drive to the quick of you in a breath, leveling you before you’ve realized you’re undone, Williamson is offensively explicit. He doesn’t feint, he doesn’t dance, he doesn’t tease out all the ways he could blow by a guy, he just moves. Even when he fumbles, like he does in his debut when Poeltl blocks his spin to the basket, he simply steps between Poeltl, Marco Belinelli, and Bryn Forbes, all converging on the ball, to take his rebound and lob it up over his shoulder, backwards.

To watch Williamson is to know that dunks that will pummel you breathless are coming. His dunks hold their own emphasis but are slow to register, maybe because the force of them punches holes through what you’re accustomed to seeing. He does’t gather up kinetic force in his drives toward the basket, he is his own fixed point of gravity. From that, he explodes outward and the game, caught in the lurch of a universe having been shifted. There are times when Williamson lifts himself into air and appears to hold, arms gone back to meet his feet kicked up. He waits, you swear you can see time dragging like he has it on a leash, and only then, both his arms slam forward, down, his legs piston up, you remember he hasn’t even landed yet. And when he eventually does, most often he just walks away.

Maybe that’s what makes it so jolting to watch, how accustomed he is to shifting the physics of what makes sense on the floor. He’ll snake a pass and turn, thunder in measured steps down the floor before the disrupted offensive play has registered with its players. He’ll move to what has become a signature underhanded layup with such floating care that it seems the ball is hesitant to leave his palm, scooping it skyward. He’ll pluck lobs from the air where his teammates have pitched them, so clear and so sure that no one else will reach up to impede because their eyes, like ours, are locked on him.

To watch Zion Williamson work is to reckon with a kind of terror you don’t mind being run down by, a joyful relinquishing of breath and body. That his professional career has been so marred by external crises that it had to be underscored, again, by a pandemic after only 19 games, that he was in the locker room Alvin Gentry refused to let his players out of upon learning a referee who was exposed to the COVID-19 virus was waiting for them on the floor, that he will likely miss out on Rookie of the Year this season, feels, tracing the prophetic cord that’s run through his last less than a year, perfectly and stupidly fitting. Not right, but in step with what will hopefully be the only mythic year he has to deal with.

He will have plenty of unbelievable ones, hopefully too many to narrow down when he’s facing scarcer seasons in front than behind. But that his inaugural year, where we saw him more as parable than player, has been once again abruptly upended could be the chisel Williamson can take to his own marble facade before getting on with the rest of his career, whenever it can start again, in peace.

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