Zion Williamson, the most hyped NBA prospect since LeBron James was drafted 16 years ago, became a New Orleans Pelican on Thursday night when they took him with the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft at Barclays Center.
The selection, which basically has been a fait accompli since the Pelicans won the draft lottery a month ago, completes a crazy, emotional year under an intense spotlight for the 6-7, 285-pound Duke freshman.
The fact that the selection was no surprise doesn’t mean Williamson took it in stride. Far from it. When commissioner Adam Silver called his name, Williamson stood and hugged his mother for a good five seconds. Both were wearing similar white suits and broad smiles.
He then came close to breaking down in an interview with ESPN, describing how his mother, Sharonda Sampson, had supported his dreams of playing basketball when he was young. Sampson, a former track star, coached him until he was 14.
“I didn’t think I’d be in this position. My mom sacrificed a lot for me,” Williamson said in an interview in which he had to pause to compose himself. “I wouldn’t be here without my mom . . . She put her dreams aside for mine.”
The 18-year-old forward achieved almost rock-star status in his one year at Duke. Former president Barack Obama made the pilgrimage to see him in Durham, North Carolina, on the night he injured his knee. James and Rajon Rondo flew to see him play at Virginia. His thunderous dunks became viral sensations as he attracted more than three million Instagram followers.
Knicks fans used dreams of drafting him to get through the worst year in franchise history, regularly chanting his name as they suffered blowout loss after blowout loss.
The Knicks took Duke teammate RJ Barrett No. 3 overall after the Grizzlies selected point guard Ja Morant out of Murray State.
Williamson is viewed as a transformative talent, a player who can change a franchise. He averaged 22.6 points and 8.9 rebounds for Duke. He also shot 68 percent from the field.
He immediately becomes the most important player for the Pelicans, a team that traded Anthony Davis to the Lakers last week. It’s the type of assignment Williamson said he welcomes.
“I think I’m ready to be the face of the team,” he said. “I think you have to have that mindset or you’re not playing the right sport . . . I see myself stepping into a leadership role. I love the game. I love to win. Whatever the team needs me to do, I’m willing to do it.”
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Of the crowd’s positive reaction, the star from Duke said, “That was great. I'm glad that the city wants me here as much as I want to be here.”