NEW YORK (AP) – Zion Williamson smiled his way through nearly half an hour of questions, trying to portray himself like any player just hoping to be drafted.
Suddenly, a tall, thin newcomer pushed his way to the front of the shoulder-to-shoulder swarm surrounding Williamson and shot down that idea.
“What does it feel like,” Duke teammate RJ Barrett asked, “to be the best prospect since LeBron James?”
Williamson has similar hype. Soon, he can start showing if he has the game to match.
The power forward will almost certainly be doing it in the uniform of the New Orleans Pelicans, who hold the No. 1 pick Thursday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
NBA teams are discouraged from announcing who they will pick, and the Pelicans confirmed nothing to Williamson when he visited recently.
“They just told me that maybe they’ll draft me and I’m a good player or something,” Williamson said.
It would be one of the biggest surprises anyone in the NBA conjured up in years if the Pelicans passed on a player whose combination of size, speed and skill calls to mind James and few others.
Listed at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, Williamson averaged 22.6 points and 8.9 rebounds while shooting 68% from the field and joining Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis as the only freshmen to be voted national player of the year by The Associated Press.
His sledgehammer slams were good for college, but Williamson wants to be known for more than his above-the-rim game in the pros. In fact, he isn’t eager to take part in the Slam Dunk Contest.
Instead, he’s been improving his 3-point shot, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski noted that Williamson was previously a perimeter player before bulking up and becoming a force around the basket.
“He’s still only 18 years old,” Krzyzewski said on his SiriusXM radio show. “And as good of an athlete – he’s a top percentile athlete in the world, not just in the game of basketball. He’s that level of young man.”
No wonder Pelicans fans are so eager to get him. Williamson said he found New Orleans to be welcoming when he walked around the city, and the locals should love him even more now after the team agreed over the weekend to trade Davis to the Lakers to play with James.
“The city seems very excited if I come there,” Williamson said.
Memphis has the No. 2 pick and an apparent opening at point guard for Murray State’s Ja Morant after agreeing to trade Mike Conley to Utah on Wednesday. Barrett is hoping he’ll go to the New York Knicks with the third pick, and whoever lands at No. 4 is set to be Williamson’s teammate because the Lakers included the pick in the package for Davis.
Teams drafting beyond that should feel confident about their chances for success after a season in which the Toronto Raptors won the NBA title with a roster featuring no lottery picks, and Giannis Antetokounmpo emerged as an MVP finalist after being taken with the No. 15 pick in 2013. So, drafting smart seems more important than drafting high.
Still, the season-long attention on Williamson dwarfed nearly everything else, so all eyes will be on him Thursday night as he walks onto the stage to greet Commissioner Adam Silver. Williamson called himself a simple guy, so maybe he won’t wear the type of flashy suit that it is the usual draft-night dress code; the striped sweater he wore Wednesday was certainly plain enough.
His game definitely isn’t.
“For his size, he can get everywhere he wants on the floor,” said De’Andre Hunter of national champion Virginia. “He’s just a very strong, dominant player.”
Williamson doesn’t seem caught up in the hype, seeing himself more as a team player than franchise savior. He wasn’t expecting to be the No. 1 option at Duke and isn’t lobbying for the job in New Orleans.
“I don’t really look at the expectations,” Williamson said. “I just want to win at the end of the day and I’m just going to try to be the best version of myself, and whatever the team needs me to do I’m going to be willing to do it.”
But his standards are high, responding to a question about his goals by saying they include “MVP, Rookie of the Year and eventually possibly Defensive Player of the Year. Hall of Famer.”
Not even James has done all that.