NEW YORK -- New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson made his first public appearance as the newest face of Jordan Brand on Saturday morning, when he helped unveil the upcoming Air Jordan 34 sneaker at a community event in Harlem.
The newest annual Air Jordan model will officially be released Sept. 25, with Williamson slated to headline and wear the shoe throughout the start of his rookie NBA season this fall.
On Saturday, Williamson was immediately surrounded by fans and younger prep players as he walked onto the freshly upgraded Jumpman-branded court of the Dunlevy Milbank Center.
"From the second I walked onto the court, I got nothing but love," he said.
Once the fandom died down, Williamson quickly stretched at the top of the key, then looked to take flight in a made-for-social media moment.
First, he threw down his signature windmill tomahawk from the left side. Next, with just three steps of momentum, he performed a near effortless between-the-legs dunk as the youngsters in attendance jumped in unison with his liftoff.
"The kids were hyping me up to do some cool dunks," Williamson added. "So I couldn't disappoint them."
As the Jordan Brand transitions away from Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook as the face of its annual Air Jordan shoe, with his Why Not Zer0 signature line just beginning, the company is hoping that signing the most sought-after rookie since LeBron James as an endorser will help to elevate and continue the relevance of the shoe series, even more than three decades after Michael Jordan first introduced it.
"The first thing I think everyone is going to notice [about Zion] is the explosiveness," said Gentry Humphrey, vice president of Jordan Footwear. "Michael put the air in 'Air,' but this boy gets up. I asked him, 'Hey, what do you really think your vertical is?' He said, 'Well, last test, I went off the charts, so I really don't know. I think it's about 49 or 50.'"
That explosiveness, as the company found out during the highly anticipated Duke-North Carolina game earlier this year, can at times put unparalleled force and strain on Williamson's sneakers.
The Air Jordan 34 and the brand's additional upcoming technologies presented to him during his official pitch meeting in June proved to be a key factor in wooing Williamson to sign on.
"From an innovation standpoint, his family was very keen on making sure that we were able to build a product for him," Humphrey said. "He's really proud of the fact that at 6-6 and 285, he moves like a point guard, and yet he has the ability to move like a power forward. That's somewhat of a unique combination."
Weighing in as one of the lightest Air Jordan models in the series, the Air Jordan 34 features a new "eclipse plate" for added propulsion, both heel and forefoot Zoom Air cushioning units, along with targeted support panels and lockdown elements on the upper.
"All of the innovation that we rolled out to him and that we looked at to address his needs -- it was really, really scientific," Humphrey said. "He really appreciated that angle that we came at."
While Williamson will be the headliner, the shoe launches at a time of increased aggressiveness by the brand to add even more NBA players to a roster of around 30 athletes. Re-establishing the performance of the line has been an added emphasis.
"We had the discussion about taking back the courts," designer Tate Kuerbis said. "That was number one. Let's take back the courts, and make it the best playing shoe we've ever had."
The new model also creates a unique bridge for the designer. Kuerbis penned the Air Jordan XVIII for the 2002-03 season, the final sneaker of Michael Jordan's NBA career. Now, he has designed the sneaker that Williamson will begin his pro career in.
"I'm hoping Michael didn't [retire] because of the shoe," Kuerbis said, laughing. "The idea of Zion is super exciting for us. An athlete like that will take the brand even somewhere completely different."
While their games might not share much aside from the air, Jordan Brand is hoping the electricity of Zion's personality can mirror the instant frenzy that was Jordan's rookie season and make for that same marketing magic.
"To me, that's what [Zion is] going to bring, that's a lot like Michael," Humphrey said. "He's a human highlight. In the digital world we live in today, that's how kids connect to the game and it's going to be super exciting for us and a great opportunity."