I want to get this out of the way — this isn’t actually me complaining about rankings. Complaining about ESPN or Sports Illustrated’s appraisal of the top NBA players is an easy way to generate content this time of year, and the point of the rankings is to get people to talk about it in impassioned ways. As anyone who reads my content knows, my passion was surgically removed five years ago in a horrible propane fire accident, so you’ll find no emotional pleas to respect my players.
This, instead, is about what the rankings mean for the way the media looks at players, and the way the NBA fans look at players. Tons of hours of thought — misguided or no — went into evaluating and comparing players, and much of it is a result of talking to smart basketball people. So when Chris Paul ranks at #32 on ESPN’s list a year after being seen as a top 15 player in the NBA a year ago, it’s not just about a number; it’s about how media and fans view aging, trade results, and the landscape of the league as a whole.
With this in mind, it may be amazing for Pelicans fans to see Zion Williamson ranked #42 on ESPN’s list. And for fans of a team that largely goes ignored by the media at best, seeing your rookie that high on the list must be like a glass of water after years in the desert. But there are two potential drawbacks to debuting on the bottom half of the Top 100: hype and pressure.
It is true that Zion Williamson is the most hyped rookie since at least Anthony Davis, and possibly since some kid from Akron in 2003. But rookies are still rookies — everyone needs to learn the game and adjust to the speed and power of actual adults. And putting a rookie, even one as talented and celebrated as Zion, in the Top 50 NBA players before he plays even a preseason game just reeks as premature. According to ESPN, he will enter his first game better than DeMar DeRozan, an injured Klay Thompson, and Kevin Love. Those sort of comparisons create expectations that may prove impossible to live up to. Essentially rankings like this will set up Zion for failure. (Sports Illustrated’s rankings take this into consideration and do not rate rookies for this purpose.)
A quick sidebar on this: I know that a common response is “these rankings don’t matter!” It’s easy to say that, and for the most part that is true. Evaluating Jrue Holiday as the 31st best player instead of the 25th best player doesn’t really make any tangible impact on my life or anyone else’s life. But rankings matter to the players because it symbolizes respect for the hard work they’ve put into their craft. Players have and will continue to say they don’t care, but Kevin Durant’s reactions have shown that players do care about these things. They care about who is ranked above them and beneath them. And even the most even-keeled player is going to feel disrespected that people think a rookie is better than them.
That amount of hype and the attention that comes with it also brings a lot of pressure. Pressure to live up to the praise. Like I said, living up to a ranking that high may be tough for anyone to do. LeBron James is one of the only instances where a player was hyped to the moon and ended up surpassing it as he flew out of the solar system. Just ask guys like Harrison Barnes or Andrew Wiggins how they dealt with the pressure of being a future can’t-miss-superstar. Pressure isn’t unilaterally bad — obviously it can serve as a motivator for players to get better, and Zion may very well be the kind of person who can take that pressure and excel. However, David Griffin doesn’t want him to have to deal with that pressure any time soon. How many times have we heard Griff say, “Zion is not the savior to this city” or “This is Jrue’s team”? This, like most things in the David Griffin playbook, is by design: he understands that pressure can be heavy on a 19 year old, and he has done his best to publicly dissuade it. However, he can’t protect his young star forever, and presumptive rankings like ESPN’s add more fuel to a fire that may end up burning too bright for Zion.
Of course, all of this could end up being nothing. Zion could lace up his Jordans in October and prove that the hype is real (and for the record, I do think the hype is real). And if Pelicans fans want to enjoy the respect he is getting right out of the gate, there is no reason they shouldn’t. But the attitude in New Orleans is to focus on the journey rather than a particular destination, and rankings like ESPN’s may end up putting a lot of unnecessary obstacles on the road to success.