Take 5: Getting excited for NBA, Williamson

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield walks off the field after losing to the Seattle Seahawks, Oct. 13, at FirstEnergy Stadium.

With the NBA season starting on Oct. 22, The Pitt News sports staff takes on several basketball-related topics such as the potential of Zion Williamson and the league’s improving parity.

The Zion that was promised

In the past weeks, the buzz around NBA rookie Zion Williamson has transformed from speculative hype into bona fide praise, leaving many excited for his run in the league.

The 2019 No. 1 draft pick has shouldered expectations of greatness since high school, where he produced highlight-reel dunks on a regular basis. Then at Duke, he proved that his electric style of play could work at the college level. He displayed astonishing athleticism, sound basketball IQ and a great personality — all the ingredients for an NBA superstar. Despite this, big questions remained about how his skillset might transfer to the modern NBA.

These questions have since been laid to rest.

Four preseason games into his career, it’s safe to say that Williamson will be a force in the NBA. At 27.2 minutes per game he has averaged 23.3 points on 71% shooting with 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals — a start as good as any rookie in NBA history.

The response that this is “just the preseason” is simply ridiculous. Williamson is performing at an elite level against NBA players as a 19-year-old. No matter what kind of games these are, the stats speak for themselves. It seems laughable that Williamson would drop off dramatically just because the games start counting towards the Pelicans’ record.

Williamson has proven that his game can transfer to the NBA. He’s relatively short for an NBA forward at 6-foot-7, but he has shown that his incredible explosiveness at 285 pounds is sufficient to make him a problem in the paint. Additionally, his natural sense of floor spacing gets him open in all the right spots, and he has surprising ball-handling skills and body control for such a large human being.

Williamson has arrived on basketball’s biggest stage, and he’s ready to dominate the NBA just as he did in high school and college.

— Sean Tierney, Staff Writer

Three’s a crowd

The regular season of the NBA will commence next Tuesday, bringing much to look forward to. Williamson leads an exciting rookie class ready to make its mark. The Golden State Warriors’ half decade of dominance may be over with the departure of Kevin Durant. And the new pairings of Anthony Davis with Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard with Paul George have set up an enticing battle for Los Angeles.

It’s this prospect of pairs in particular that will define this NBA season, and maybe a new era of the league in general. For years, fans watched superstars pair up in threes. The Boston Celtics started the trend as Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett linked up to win a championship in 2008. To combat this, LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami and brought two trophies to the Heat. James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love formed another trio in Cleveland to bring the city its first title ever. And of course, Kevin Durant ditched Russell Westbrook to join the 73-9 Warriors in one of the most defining moments in league history.

But the Big Threes didn’t always work out so well. James’ Heat went only 2-2 in the Finals after declaring they would win “not one, not two, not three …” titles. Love was largely reduced to a role player throughout James’ second stint in Cleveland, and Irving couldn’t handle James’ presence. The end of Durant’s Golden State career was mired with drama and rumours before he inevitably departed.

Now it appears that teams have decided two players is enough. Joining the LA superstar tandems are several other incredible pairings. In Houston, Westbrook and James Harden will attempt to capture the title that has previously eluded each of them. Durant and Irving teamed up in Brooklyn. Several other underrated duos exist throughout the league — Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and the best three-point shooting teammates in history will continue to light up the Bay when Klay Thompson joins Steph Curry late in the season.

It remains to be seen how this new trend will pan out. Accommodating the preferences of two players is certainly easier than three. It should allow for a better mesh of personalities and playing styles. If any of these duos ends up champs this year, the trend could be here to stay.

— Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

Leave Wentz out of it

The Philadelphia Eagles’ mediocre 3-3 start to NFL season has been blamed, by many, on quarterback Carson Wentz’s underwhelming statistics. It’s true that Wentz currently ranks in the bottom half of quarterbacks in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story.

With 17 dropped balls and three fumbles, Philadelphia’s receiving corps is hindering the offense’s ability to sustain drives. Their ineptitude has also skewed Wentz’s numbers in a negative way. Dropped balls like Nelson Agholor’s potential go-ahead touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons is just one example of how both Philadelphia’s record and Wentz’s stats are misleading.

The Eagles’ secondary has also been abysmal, which is the main reason that the team has lost three games. Philadelphia’s secondary ranks in the bottom third of the league in most coverage categories. Most recently, this group gave up 333 yards and four touchdowns to Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, making him look like an All-Pro player.

Wentz can’t do everything for the Eagles. Until the receivers start catching more passes, the offense will continue to be below average. On the other side of the ball, the secondary has to improve or Philadelphia will fall drastically short of its preseason expectations.

— Ben Mankowski, Staff Writer

The Browns aren’t clowns

It seems like the hot thing right now is to bash the Cleveland Browns for their underachieving 2-4 start after many analysts in the offseason projected them to be AFC North champions. Here’s a hot take — the Browns will be just fine.

Things certainly haven’t turned out as expected for Cleveland to this point. Its offensive line hasn’t been able to give quarterback Baker Mayfield any time. Mayfield has thrown the most interceptions in the league and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. hasn’t lived up to the market price of his offseason acquisition.

But with a much-needed bye week to regroup and evaluate, the Browns’ second-half schedule gets much more favorable. Of Cleveland’s last nine games, seven come against teams that are currently under .500.

By the time the Browns reach this part of their schedule they’ll have had more than enough time to work out the kinks of starting the season with a new head coach, players and scheme.

Assuming the Browns can capitalize on their weak schedule ahead, you can expect the media to jump back on the Cleveland bandwagon by season’s end. They’ll talk about the rediscovered greatness of Mayfield and how Beckham Jr. was a steal of a trade. That’s just how the news cycle works.

So, if you’re a Browns fan down in the dumps during this bye week, cheer up. The season is still very long, leaving plenty of time for Cleveland to become the darlings of the NFL once again.

— Michael Elesinmogun, Staff Writer

From tank-offs to playoffs

Five NBA ball clubs — the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns — won fewer than 30 games last season. In a shameless race to the bottom, these five tanking teams led the way.

But for the first time in a long time, it looks like many of the NBA’s bottom-tier teams are trending up rather than eyeing up a top pick in next year’s draft. Of those five aforementioned teams, three are finally set to build upon a promising young core.

Under general manager Travis Schlenk, the Hawks have built up a dynamic cast of youthful talent that embraces the modern NBA game. Trae Young and Kevin Huerter flashed their 3-point shooting prowess as rookies last season, and springy forward John Collins is the perfect rim-rolling complement. Throw in promising 2019 rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cameron Reddish — along with a veteran stabilizer in Evan Turner — and Atlanta should at least crack 35 wins.

In Phoenix, even the Suns’ inept management will find it hard to screw up the team’s quietly talented roster. The team added defensive-minded veterans Ricky Rubio and Aaron Baynes in the offseason, along with sharpshooting stretch forward Dario Saric. With these role players centered around Phoenix’s star-caliber young duo of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, the Suns are due to crack 25 wins for the first time since 2014-15.

Likewise, the Bulls added defensive-oriented depth in the offseason by acquiring Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young. These sort of moves won’t win championships, but they’ll go a long way in helping unlock the potential of blossoming stars Zach Lavine, Lauri Markkanen and rookie Coby White.

With these three clubs finally rising out of the NBA basement, the league should be more exciting as a whole. Unfortunately, there’s no brightness on the horizon for the Cavaliers or Knicks, while the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets are set to join them in a less competitive tank-off for top drafting rights in 2020.

— Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

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