Zion Williamson is ready to make his long-awaited return to the NBA next season after missing the entire 2021/22 campaign due to a foot injury. The New Orleans Pelicans' young star hasn't lived the best years, but now he's looking for revenge while helping his team compete for something bigger than last season.
While many people don't expect much for the Pelicans, even with Zion back, the former No. 1 overall pick is set to prove doubters wrong. One of the biggest inspirations of Zion is Naruto Uzumaki, the main character from the Japanese manga series who impacted many fans in the world for a lot of years.
The manga and anime tell the story of "a young ninja who seeks recognition from his peers and dreams of becoming the Hokage, the leader of his village."
A couple of weeks ago, Zion attended the San Diego Comic-Con to talk about Naruto. He released a pair of his signature shoes homaging the anime, and more recently, he dedicated a full interview to talk about his love for Naruto and what it means in his life and career.
NBA players often use sneakers to carry what matters to them onto the court. Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics famously writes his son Deuce’s name on every pair of sneakers he plays in. International players will take the court in Player Editions of their country’s colors. For Zion, finally getting to lace these shoes up this season holds a similar resonance. “From what I’ve been through to get to where I am and what I go through to this day,” he says, “Naruto has always been there and always will be.”
Zion sees some similarities between himself and Naruto, especially the fact that people didn't give him the respect they deserved until they showed what they could do in their respective areas.
That’s when his Naruto fandom became something more totemic. “For a while, nobody took Naruto seriously,” he explains, “And then he went and trained with [master shinobi] Jiraiya for three years, right? And he came back at 16 years old, goated.” The storyline reminds Williamson of the years he spent being coached by his stepfather, Lee Anderson. He considers Anderson taking him under his wing perhaps the single most pivotal moment of his life.
Anderson told Williamson that he could be the number one player in the country if he worked hard enough. “He always told me that even if I didn’t realize it yet, there was going to come a time when the world would see me,” Williamson says. “I didn’t get it for a while. I was always asking him why he was so confident in me.” Eventually, though, he’d worked hard enough for it to be undeniable: “Sure enough, I’m 16 years old and suddenly all of the attention starts coming. I remember thinking, Yo, that’s crazy. That’s exactly when it happened for Naruto, and it’s when it’s happening for me.”
Zion has taken his fandom for the character and the whole show very seriously, and he vows to emulate what Naruto did to become the best. Williamson knows that people will try to bring him down, but he's ready to face all of that and show them that he's the real deal.
One person who doesn’t seem concerned about any of that is Williamson. Basketball is what he loves. And he never feels pressure when it comes to doing what he loves. Whatever weight his shoulders bore over the last year seems to have lifted. “I had to come to a realization,” he explains. “No matter what the world is saying, I have to remember that I am who I am and stay true to that. That’s what Naruto did, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
No matter how big the pressure is, no matter all the bad comments, no matter how bad the odds are, Zion is ready to go against anything and anybody. This season is full of expectations for him, as many people want to see what he's bringing to the table after missing the entire 2021/22 NBA season.