McLeod Park is a 48-acre arena in Florence, South Carolina, large enough to have walking trails, tennis courts, a skateboard park, baseball diamonds and basketball courts on site.
As a child, Zion Williamson spent hours there playing against older competition. One of the lessons Williamson internalized at McLeod Park was the need to play through contact.
“You call the error out there, you get labeled soft,” Williamson said. “These experiences from when I was younger really helped me keep my cool today.”
No one can ever accuse Williamson of playing soft. From the moment he stepped on the floor as an NBA rookie, he’s played like a batter blessed with a sharp handle and a 45-inch vertical.
Williamson is already one of the game’s leading goal-scorers, which means it’s inevitable to get ugly a lot. On Thursday, Williamson drew nine fouls in the Pelicans’ win over the Detroit Pistons. Twice, the Pistons didn’t bother to play the basketball when Williamson raced to the basket, opting instead to wrap Williamson up and take him to the floor.
Williamson had 29 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, one steal and one block. It was another complete effort from the 22-year-old forward, whose Pelicans are in possession of first place in the Western Conference after winning five straight.
Williamson shot 7 of 11 from the free throw line against Detroit. He could have broken the 30-point mark for the fourth time this season had a few more calls been made in his favor.
Late in the fourth quarter, Williamson blew past Detroit forward Saddiq Bey to get to the rim. Williamson made a proper layup that extended the Pelicans lead to six with 3:04 remaining. He made the shot despite significant body contact from Detroit center Jalen Duren, which sent Williamson crashing into the basket support.
“Unreal….” Swin Cash, Pelicans vice president of basketball operations, tweeted after the call.
Compared to many NBA stars, Williamson doesn’t spend a significant amount of time each game lobbying the referees to give him a more favorable whistle. He mostly has a stoic approach to being hacked. He draws 5.7 fouls per game, according to NBA.com. That’s the 14th most among all players.
When the opposition gets too physical with Williamson, he has teammates willing to stand up for him. In the second quarter of Wednesday’s game, Williamson caught a lob pass. As Williamson rose to shoot, Pistons wing Alec Burks put his hands around Williamson’s waist and took him to the ground.
Pelicans forward Naji Marshall came rushing to Williamson’s defense. The referees deemed it overzealous, as they gave Marshall a technical foul for going at Burks and exchanging words with him.
“These are our best players,” Marshall said. “Anyone who messes with them, they have to see me.”
Marshall, who scored 17 points, said he was glad to have been involved in a regular season game that was so physical. He said it was a preview of what the games will be like once the playoffs are reached.
“I don’t think we played a physical game all season,” Marshall said. “In practice, when you know each other, you knock on each other. It reminded me a bit of boot camp. I think it was very good for us.”
Williamson kept his cool throughout Wednesday’s game. Williamson will continue to draw a lot of contact because of how often he attacks the rim. His education at McLeod Park taught him how to cope.
“What all the adults tell you there,” Williamson said, “is that’s where you make boys into men.”