When Zion Williamson steps onto the floor at the Thomas & Mack Arena on July 6, the unique frenzy that surrounds him will follow.
Similar scenes have taken place across the country as Williamson brought his show mainstream while playing for Duke, but it all pales in comparison to what happened two years ago when Williamson and his AAU team played against fellow teenage hoops spectacle LaMelo Ball.
In what truly was an insane environment, a standing-room only crowd huddled around a court to watch Williamson’s SC Supreme play Ball’s Big Baller Brand in the Adidas Summer Uprising Championships. More than an hour before the scheduled opening tip, it seemed like every single one of the millions of Ball’s and Williamson’s Instagram followers had found their way to the court.
Spectators craned their necks to catch a glimpse. Security-ushered NBA players found court-side seats. In the height of his uncanny celebrity, Lavar Ball roamed like a king “Ball in the Family” camera crew in tow. The game was delayed to allow for extra security to make their way to the sidelines. Eventually, the venue stopped letting people into the venue. Even LeBron James was asked not to walk inside in fear of the frency multiplying beyond control.
That’s right — before James was denied from the 2019 NBA Playoffs, he was kept away from a meaningless AAU game.
Partially for Melo. But really, all for Zion.
The game was almost a sidebar to what felt like a Beatles-esque hysteria. Zion Williamson racked up 31 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals en route to a 104-92 win. LaMelo, who was just 15 years old and had not yet been shipped out to Lithuania, tallied 36 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists.
The basketball itself wasn’t that great, either. Both teams were scarce for high-level talent, and they leaned heavily on their famous teammates. There were a handful of assumed highlights: Ball uncorking “wtf” pull-up threes and Williamson displaying his “man against boys” athleticism, but even then, there wasn’t really a jaw-dropping moment for which the game begged.
When it was over, many compared the game to one of James’ high school games at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s when he would sell out University of Akron’s arena before taking his talents to the NBA. Those who watched in hopes of learning anything about either player left empty-handed, and the result of the game fluttered into relative nothingness, but it happened. And it was something nobody could forget.
I was lucky enough to be sitting on the baseline desperately trying to capture video of the game, but the swarming crowds and baseline security made it impossible. On the brightside, because I got there when I thought it was early enough, I caught the game beforehand, which featured some kid named Mac McClung.
The scene that’ll accompany Williamson’s game with the New Orleans Pelicans against former Duke teammate RJ Barrett and the New York Knicks will likely be much more organized than what happened in 2017. The Las Vegas Summer League is basically the NBA’s answer to San Diego Comic Con, where people can rub elbows with heroes and fellow superfans together.
New York's RJ Barrett makes his NBA Summer League debut against Zion Williamson and the Pelicans tonight at 9:30 ET on ESPN. https://t.co/MjF9vY39Ee
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 5, 2019
Tonight at 8:30 PM CT on ESPN: Knicks vs Pelicans NBA Summer League Basketball.
Zion vs RJ. pic.twitter.com/xFlM5RxZCo
— ProCity Hoops™ (@ProCityHoops) July 5, 2019
— Ricky Widmer (@RickyWidmer) July 5, 2019
The basketball will also be better, obviously, but still nowhere near the quality that actual NBA teams display. Most of the guys playing with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett are fighting for jobs, either in the NBA or otherwise. Actually, maybe the basketball will be more like that AAU game than a real NBA game, but regardless, once again, the environment around the game will probably be more memorable.