Zion Williamson goes toe to toe with LeBron James, extends teenage record with a career-high 35 points

Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson continues to take the NBA by storm with a combination of athleticism, power and force that has rarely, if ever, been seen — certainly not in a teenager. It still sounds crazy to say that. Williamson is 19 years old; he won’t turn 20 until July, and yet gigantic, athletically elite grown men have absolutely no idea what to do with him. 

On Sunday night, Zion went toe to toe with LeBron James for the second time in a week, this time scoring a career-high 35 points to go with seven boards. LeBron was even more brilliant, posting 34 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds for his 13th triple-double of the season, and the Lakers won the game, 122-114. 

It was a tough loss for the Pelicans, who are chasing the Grizzlies — who for their part beat the Lakers on Saturday — for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Anthony Davis wasn’t playing for the Lakers. It was a chance to get a big win and stay just two games back of Memphis. Now the gap is three games in the loss column. The good news is the Grizzlies have the toughest remaining schedule in the league, while the Pelicans have the second easiest. 

New Orleans is coming. And Zion is most certainly coming. Sunday marked the third time in 15 career games that he’s gone over 30 points, and he’s now scored at least 20 points in 11 straight games, which extends his own record for a teenager; the previous record was nine, set by Carmelo Anthony in 2003-04. Watching Zion go back and forth with LeBron, who is probably still the best player in the world, was remarkable. 

Just 15 games into his NBA career, there are already so many ways Zion can beat you. His feel for the game is way beyond his years. He’s an active and instinctual cutter. He runs the floor and establishes low, early post position. He feels defenders on his back and spins off them for seals and over-the-top lobs, for which Lonzo Ball is constantly on the lookout. 

Everyone in the world knows Zion is trying to get to his left hand, and he can still get there. He rebounds his own misses like it’s on purpose. The quickness of his second jump is astounding, as is his power to finish through anyone. Look at this play below, how Zion subtly moves toward the ball to get in position for a pass that will allow him to go straight up with his left, and then the sheer power to go right through an absolute monster of a man in Dwight Howard. 

Last Tuesday, when Zion scored 29 points against the Lakers, instead of going through the 7-foot Howard he just out-jumped him, despite being six inches shorter, for an offensive rebound. 

Over you, through you, around you, it doesn’t matter. Zion is going to get where he’s trying to go, as bulldozers tend to do. Heck, he even hit a jumper on Sunday night, with LeBron giving him ample cushion and daring him to take it. 

These are the parts of Zion’s game that will need to develop. Coming into Sunday, the average distance on Zion’s made shots was under two feet. He needs to eventually develop a consistent enough jumper to burn defenders that sag off him, and he needs to be able to dribble at least at a basic level with his right hand. Even without those skills he can pretty much do whatever he wants on a basketball court. To think about what he’s going to look like in four or five years is frightening. 

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