It's still unbelievable. The New Orleans Pelicans were a franchise in disarray after Anthony Davis' mid-season trade demands incinerated the team's playoff hopes. General manager Dell Demps was fired shortly after, and owner Gayle Benson eventually hired former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin as the new executive vice president of basketball operations. All the while, Davis' impending trade loomed like a black cloud over the franchise.
To say New Orleans sports and entertainment fans needed a collective win this summer is an understatement. Prior to Davis' trade request in January, the New Orleans Saints endured the infamous "NOLA No-Call," a missed defensive pass interference penalty by the Los Angeles Rams late in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship, likely costing the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl. In late March, the Jazz Fest headliner Rolling Stones cancelled the band's appearance at the festival's golden anniversary. Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones' replacement, also eventually cancelled. The string of disappointments was a dismal way to begin 2019.
Then the improbable happened. With just a six-percent chance to win the NBA Draft Lottery, the Pelicans defied the odds to land the No. 1 pick and the right to draft Duke freshman phenom Zion Williamson.
Simply known by his first name, Zion is the jolt of energy needed to reinvigorate the stagnant Pelicans fan base, as evidenced by the thousands of fans who turned out on Fulton Street for a draft night party.
Zion took notice of the outpouring of enthusiasm. "I saw fans that love this team," Zion said at his introductory team press conference. "The love they showed, for what I saw in the video, was incredible. I didn't think I deserved all that much. But, I mean, it was just passion for the team."
Zion burst onto the mainstream basketball scene as a high schooler in South Carolina with rim-rattling highlight dunks and freakish athleticism. Choosing to play under legendary "Coach K" Mike Krzyzewski at college, basketball powerhouse Duke rocketed the young star into the stratosphere. Last season, Zion led Duke to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament and finished with a plethora of awards and accolades.
At 6-foot-7 and 285-pounds, Zion averaged nearly 23 points and 9 rebounds per game during his lone collegiate season, while showcasing gravity-defying leaping ability, impressive defensive versatility, and overpowering strength and explosiveness. The combination of his heavy frame, athleticism, and skillset have drawn comparisons to NBA legend Charles Barkley, as well as Larry Johnson, Blake Griffin, and former Pelican Julius Randle.
Zion has been called a "once-in-a-generation" talent and is the most hyped NBA prospect since LeBron James was selected in the 2003 draft. His five-year, $75 million shoe deal with Jordan Brand is the richest annual rookie shoe deal in NBA history.
Yet despite being lauded at every turn, the 19-year-old seems grounded, humble, and genuinely grateful for the rewards he's already reaping before playing a regular season NBA game. Zion's emotional interview immediately following his selection on draft night, in which he thanked his mother for her sacrifices as tears trickled down his cheeks, punctuated by his now-famous "let's dance" message, instantly endeared him to the ever-growing army of Pelicans fans watching in New Orleans and around the globe.
"I dreamt about having my name called by the commissioner since I was a little kid, and for him to call my name first meant even more to me," Zion said. "Having my family and friends there to support me-I think just made that moment much better."
Biblically, Mount Zion is the hill in Jerusalem on which the City of David, a palace named for the King of Israel, was built. David Griffin was tapped as the architect of the franchise barely a month before the Pelicans won the NBA Lottery. Since April, Griffin has assembled the foundational building blocks for the franchise's future, the most important cornerstone being Zion.
Even though Griffin insists that veteran guard Jrue Holiday is the face of the franchise, Zion is the proverbial hill upon whose shoulders Griffin will construct a successful franchise.
"Physically, he's touched by the hand of God to play this game," the Pelicans executive said of Zion on draft night. That sounds like a franchise savior in the making.
To his credit, Zion is buying into the culture Griffin is rapidly establishing, embracing his role as a rookie, not a basketball messiah. "I haven't even played one game yet, so I look at it just like that," Zion said. "I'm just trying to come contribute to the team. Whatever the vets need me to do, I'm ready to do it."
Zion seems ready for New Orleans, and New Orleans is definitely ready for him. As a Crescent City basketball fan, however, it's fair to feel slight trepidation about the latest potential savior the city's franchise has drafted. Both Chris Paul and Davis forced trades out of New Orleans, albeit handling it differently, but the result was the same-a superstar drafted by the franchise eventually bolted. Will Zion still be enamored with New Orleans by 2025?
The answer is currently unclear, but Griffin and the organization seem to be charting a new path for handling the development of the latest basketball prodigy to land in the Big Easy.
For now, it's time for Pelicans fans to ratchet up the excitement, grab a ticket to the Smoothie King Center or turn on the television, and enjoy the magic that Zion is capable of bringing every time he steps on the court.
Zion's an electrifying dunk. He's a ferocious block. He's a Mississippi-wide smile. He's a franchise cornerstone. He's a savior. He is hope. And, New Orleans, he is ours.