MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
As we head into NBA All-Star weekend, there is one player who won't be featured in the main event and yet all eyes are on him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: His foot comes out of his shoe. That's unbelievable.
DAN SHULMAN: He broke his shoe with his own foot.
KELLY: Even people who are not into basketball may know that moment from ESPN. That's Zion Williamson, then playing at Duke University, who did manage to break his own shoe, his fancy Nike shoe; it fell apart. Despite that, he was still considered to be a sure thing for the NBA. In fact, he was the No. 1 overall draft pick. He went to the New Orleans Pelicans, where - no surprise if you watch ESPN - he is maybe the league's most exciting rookie.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOEL MEYERS: Doesn't rush it. And how about the cut? Zion. Yes, off the glass, right over Whiteside. Put his body into him.
ANTONIO DANIELS: The thing is, once he brings that body into you, it's over.
KELLY: Let's bring in Jeff Nowak. He's a digital sports producer at nola.com, The Times-Picayune, where he covers Zion Williamson. Jeff Nowak, welcome.
JEFF NOWAK: Thanks for having me, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So I said he is maybe the most exciting rookie out there. Would you agree? Is he living up to the hype?
NOWAK: Well, we had to wait a little bit for him. But yeah, I mean, the last nine games, he's been playing. And yeah, people have flipped head over heels for him, and he's done a lot to earn that (laughter).
KELLY: He had an incredible night last night, is that right? Walk us through what happened.
NOWAK: Well, I mean, he's an incredible night a lot of nights. But yeah, last night in particular, he had 32 points, you know. It's been interesting to watch because he just continues to get better and better. And typically, you know, you watch a rookie and they have, like, rookie moments. And they get better gradually throughout the season, but you don't necessarily see it (laughter) happening from play to play. There's at least four or five moments every game that you just - the only reaction is to just laugh and shake your head because he's 19 years old.
NOWAK: And he's just bullying (laughter), like, just entrenched NBA centers that are six inches taller than him. And you just can't help but, like, wonder, you know, what's this going to look like two, three years down the road, when he's, like, old enough to drink. Like...
KELLY: But you said, though - you said we had wait awhile because he's been injured. He sat out a bunch games.
NOWAK: Yeah. So you played the clip of him exploding the shoe; he didn't explode his shoe this time, which - I keep waiting for that to happen. It's, like, it seems inevitable. It's, like, you can't build shoes that can contain this person. But it's - you know, he's got some knee issues. And so they had to - they did meniscus surgery to clean that up. He missed the first 44 games.
KELLY: Forty-four games. Wow. Yeah.
KELLY: Was it obvious from when he was very, very young - I mean, he still is very, very young. He's 19.
KELLY: But I know you've been following him since high school. Was it clear he was going on to something very big even then?
NOWAK: Right. I mean, very, very young as in 15 years old four years ago. But yeah, I mean, so I remember during those days, you would just, like - you know, you would just be on Twitter, you know, anywhere, and you would just have these hype reels come across your feed of this kid just leaping out of the gym and dunking and, like, just - he looked like an NBA athlete in high school.
NOWAK: And, you know, at the time, I was like, oh, OK, he's a dunker. He'll be good, but he's not going to be able to do this at a professional level. I mean, everyone's a premier athlete in the NBA and in, you know, Division 1 college basketball. And I was wrong (laughter).
KELLY: Jeff Nowak, thank you.
NOWAK: Of course. Thanks for having me on, Mary Louise.
KELLY: That is Jeff Nowak of nola.com, The Times-Picayune, talking there about the rise of Zion Williamson.
(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH MASEKELA'S "UP, UP AND AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.