Eric Walden: Zion Williamson makes a stunning NBA debut. Now the critics should shut up and let him play.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) reacts after making a 3-point basket in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. The Spurs won 121-117. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

On Friday morning, the NBA PR team’s official Twitter account sent out a “By the Numbers” release regarding Zion Williamson’s debut on ESPN on Wednesday night.

Included among them:

• 2.357 million viewers (+88% vs. last year’s comparable game).

• Williamson’s jersey now in top 10 best-selling jerseys among NBA players.

• Sold-out crowd of 18,365 fans at the attendance-challenged Smoothie Kings Center.

• NBA social content featuring Williamson earned more than 25 million views in 24 hours.

• +190% more unique international viewers on NBA League Pass than the average game on the platform this season.

NOT included on the graphic, but also of relevance, are my own numerical additions:

• One graphic displayed by broadcaster ESPN noting that Williamson is the third-heaviest player in the NBA.

• Less than four minutes is all the time it took for ESPN game analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy to turn their commentary to Williamson looking heavier than ever, questioning the validity of his listed weight, and to suggest that dramatic weight loss was needed for him to have an effective NBA career.

• Less than four minutes is also all the time it took for Jackson to conclude the Pelicans had made a mistake in drafting Williamson instead of Memphis Grizzlies phenom Ja Morant.

• Approximately eleventy gajillion percent is the slice of those 25 million social media views that were devoted to razing Jackson and Van Gundy for “fat shaming” Williamson.

My Jazz coverage colleague Andy Larsen wrote a little ways back that part of the reason the NBA is suffering a ratings decline this season is because its announcers do such a poor job of presenting the game in a positive light.

Williamson’s debut is just such an example.

Do I think Van Gundy and Jackson are horrific people who were intentionally fat shaming? No. Do I think they clumsily executed the stating of a broader concern about how lingering questions regarding Williamson’s physique will ultimately affect the longevity and impact of his career? Most likely.

But why on earth did they feel compelled to do that after less than four minutes of watching him play?!

Look, I get the argument that they’re pseudo-journalists now, and it’s their job to give honest opinions about what they’re seeing out on the court, and to not sugar-coat obvious deficiencies in order to positively promote a product. I also get that Williamson’s start to that game was a largely passive, tentative, ineffectual stint not worthy of being praised.

What most of us got — and which those two apparently did not in that moment — is that it’s pretty ridiculous to use such a small and loaded sample size (a 19-year-old ridiculously-hyped rookie’s pro debut in a highly-charged environment after having missed 44 games due to injury) as an opportunity to draw broad and sweeping conclusions.

When Williamson went on to immolate NBA Twitter with a 17-point fourth-quarter stretch that included 4-for-4 shooting from 3-point range, Van Gundy would subsequently appear on SportsCenter and offer some praise of the rookie (“I love the vision and the passing, the quickness of the second jump”) before ultimately concluding, “I haven’t seen enough to know exactly what he is as a player.”

In spite of the leviathan buzz emanating from Williamson’s closing stretch, that is a perfectly fair and reasonable statement to make about an 18-minute rookie debut.

Which begs the question — where the hell was that restraint four minutes in?