There are few people in sports that can combine generational athleticism and advanced intelligence.
Those rare personalities can make the sports world bend to their whim, especially in the NBA.
Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and LeBron James are among a select few in the history of the NBA that could dictate organizational moves, because leadership in these organizations had to respect their iconic status.
Enter New Orleans Pelicans rookie, Zion Williamson.
In an interview with Colin Cowherd on Thursday, legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, who coached Williamson for one year at Duke, compared the young star’s IQ to the likes of Bryant and James.
Williamson has been known as a highlight machine since his time in high school, which has made many overlook his unique basketball acumen.
But not Krzyzewski.
“I had an interview about three weeks ago where I talked about Kobe and LeBron, coaching them on the Olympic teams and they are brilliant at the moment it’s happening. That’s unusual,” said Krzyzewski. “I can be smart out of a timeout or whatever but when you have somebody that is playing the game and that is not only smart about his or her play but the play of a unit … that’s the treasure. Those guys had it and Zion has it.
In a professional sports culture created by billionaire owners who seek to control many of the athletes they employ, it’s the players that Krzyzewski describes that can harness their own power and demand changes to their situations.
Bryant’s front office suggestions and public trade request in 2007, forced the Lakers to acquire Pau Gasol midway through the 2007-08 season. After adding the skilled seven footer, the Lakers went on to three straight NBA Finals, winning back to back titles in 2009 and 2010.
Johnson forced the Lakers to fire head coach Paul Westhead in 1981 after becoming frustrated with the direction of the offense. After a guy named Pat Riley took over head coaching responsibilities, the Lakers went on to win the NBA championship that season and become one of the most dominant teams of the 1980s.
James was key in engineering personnel moves, during his NBA Finals appearances in Cleveland. He continuously put pressure on the Cavs front office to upgrade the roster with talent during his second stint with the organization. At one point in 2018, GM, Koby Altman, brought James in for a sit-down to discuss potential trade moves that would help the team that season.
The Cavaliers made the NBA Finals four straight seasons and won the title in 2016 behind LeBron.
Williamson, who was averaging 23.6 points per game as a rookie before the season was suspended, has the opportunity to harness this same power that benefited all of these stars.
And he shouldn’t make the same mistake that James and Bryant did by waiting until they reach the primes of their careers to demand change in their organizations.
Johnson acted swiftly and was able to ensure that his championship window didn’t close after he won his first title in 1980. Williamson can do the same and force David Griffin and the Pelicans to put more stars around him now instead of waiting years for the right draft pick to come along.
Championship windows evaporate quickly.