Zion Williamson Is Basketball Bo Jackson

Illustration for article titled Zion Williamson Is Basketball Bo Jackson
Photo: Jonathan Bachman (Getty Images)

You can find some of the very worst people in the world on Twitter, in barbershops, at bars, and anywhere else the upcoming NBA season is being discussed. If you need help distinguishing these repugnant motherfuckers from the rest, just listen in on the conversation, wait until Zion Williamson is brought up, and witness their unmitigated glee at the injury that will sideline him for at least the first month and a half of the season.


What makes these people so odious—besides, of course, finding joy in a teenager’s pain—is that they’ve wished for Zion to get injured just so they could win arguments about his risk of injury.

“Hey, you know that freak of nature athlete with the boundless energy, enthusiasm, and glee? That transcendent, franchise transforming, paradigm shifter expanding our notions of what the human body is capable of? Well, I’d rather say ‘I told you so’ than actually watch him play.”

If I had my druthers, I’d place each of these punchbowl turds in the restricted area and make them take a charge from an exploding Zion. I have no druthers, though—I’m utterly devoid of druther—so I’ll have to wait until (at least) December to experience the schadenfreude of them no longer experiencing it.

That said, the idea that Zion’s body isn’t built for what his body does is neither new nor exclusive to those aforementioned dilweeds. Much of the appeal of watching him play is centered on this paradox. He is six foot six and roughly 280 pounds—a physique more similar to an NFL defensive end than an NBA power forward. He also walks with a bit of a waddle. It’s a unique waddle, though, because he’s also always bouncing on the balls of his feet, which makes him look like a bouncer perpetually ready to break up a fight. He is, for lack of a better term, a pouncer. And that someone in that body is able to dunk from the foul line and do effortless 360s where he still seems to be elevating while dunking will never not be absurd.

He is also much more skilled and savvy than this hyper-focus on his body might lead you to believe. He has the body control of someone 60 pounds lighter; I saw a Reddit thread last week comparing him to a pre-injury Derrick Rose in the way he torques and contorts to find angles, and as counterintuitive as that connection seems to be, it’s not wrong. He’s also a decent passer who makes quick and decisive decisions in traffic, and while he doesn’t handle well enough to be a guard, it’s tight and surprisingly shifty—which is more than enough for someone with his strength, speed, and hops to get past or power through someone.

Unfortunately, this sort of criticism—people wanting him to fail just so they’ll be proven right—has followed Zion from high school to Duke, and now to the NBA. His singular body and skillset has compelled some of those who’ve witnessed him dominate to possess an almost pathological skepticism. After he dominated the relatively small high school league he was in, it was “wait until he plays AAU ball.” After he dominated that, it was “wait until he gets to college.” After he dominated in the preseason at Duke, it was “wait until he starts playing ACC conference ball.” After he dominated that it was “wait until he gets to the NCAA tournament.” After he dominated that it was “wait until he gets to the NBA.” After he dominated the preseason, it’s now “wait until he gets to the regular season.” He could drop 70 a game in the Finals, and they’ll still come back with “wait until he plays the Martians.”


Even those, like me, who are fully on the Zion bandwagon, admit to a latent unease when watching him play. It’s just so unbelievable that someone with his body can do what he does that you suspect he’s cheating physics and gravity and metabolism and that it’ll catch up to him. The difference between us and the dilweeds is that we just don’t want it to. We want him to figure his body out on his own—and perhaps maybe learn that a 20-or-30-pound lighter him is the optimal him—and not need a knee injury to do it.

Predictably, since we’ve become aware of Zion, pundits and fans and even other players have been trying to find an accurate comparison for him. Sportspeople think and talk and argue and bond through analogy; your relationship with another sports fan isn’t complete until you’ve agreed that this one thing this contemporary player does is like this other thing another player did years ago. LeBron James has been mentioned, frequently, because of the somewhat similar hypes surrounding the starts of their careers and the explosive athleticism they both possess. Other names include Larry Johnson, Rodney Rodgers, and young Blake Griffin. Personally, I see more of an evolutionary Charles Barkley.

But I think, for the best comparison, we might have to leave basketball. At 19, Zion already seems to be more real-time legend than real life and possesses the sort of kinetic force that his body might not be built to withstand. An atom bomb in a Wheaties box. Even young LeBron and Shaq and Vince Carter, as athletically gifted as they were, made sense. You’d look at them and think “Ok. I get it.” Zion defies it, and the only other truly sense-defying professional athlete I’ve seen—who consistently did things that his body just should not have been capable of doing—is Bo Jackson.


I’m not the first person to say this. Former Duke star Christian Laettner also made that observation last spring, and I’m sure there have been and will continue to be others. I just hope that...well, you know what I hope. And I won’t even risk putting that thought in the world by typing it out.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



I think part of why Zion Williamson is getting such shade is that NBA players have gotten noticeably lighter over the past decade or so. In the pace and space game, there’s not really a lane for bruisers anymore, and Zion Williamson is, at first glance, a BRUISER.

Great point about evolutionary Charles Barkley, because Barkley would play like Zion if he entered the league right now. I’m more prone to Larry Johnson as a comparison, but I’ve been a stan since the UNLV days. And even if Zion’s career arc is like LJ’s, you have a multiple time all-star who even after getting hurt was the 2nd option on a NBA Finals team. You could do a LOT worse as a #1 overall pick.

The crazy thing I’m not that worried about his weight. What I’m afraid of is that by pushing him to an arbitrary number, you end up with him overworking his joints and losing some of the power that makes him special. I’d focus more on keeping the body fat low. He’ll settle into a better weight that way, and if it’s 5 or 40 lbs. lighter, he’ll still be that explosive force he is.