Stephen A. Smith on Zion Williamson Credit: The Stephen A. Smith Show

Three separate times in the past few days, Stephen A Smith has turned in some of his most vintage monologues going at Zion Williamson.

Following Williamson’s poor showings in the NBA Cup last week and his New Orleans Pelicans getting blown out by LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, Smith didn’t have to look hard to critique Williamson’s performance. But rather than question why Williamson is not getting to the free-throw line or why the Pelicans’ small lineups are faltering because Williamson isn’t playing enough defense, Smith is going a different route.

Smith just keeps calling Williamson fat.

On Sunday, “Zion is fat” made the title of Smith’s podcast on YouTube. On Monday, it was “‘Chefs love Zion.’” In between, Smith made even host Molly Qerim uncomfortable recounting the stomach slip he saw as Williamson attempted a free-throw during the NBA Cup semifinals, which Smith broadcast for ESPN.

Smith then gave even more context from his deep sourcing of New Orleans chefs, saying that Williamson has a reputation for eating so much as a diner that he will even eat through to the table.

“Zion Williamson has missed 63 percent of his games, and he hasn’t even finished his fifth year in the NBA,” Smith said on Monday’s episode of The Stephen A. Smith Show. “That’s how pathetic it’s been.”

Smith continued:

“His affliction is food. He can’t stop eating. How would I know this? Could it be because chefs in New Orleans love him? That could be one reason. That’s what I’ve heard.

“Could it be that New Orleans is one of the best cities in America if not the best city in America when it comes to restaurants and food? Sure. But the ultimate evidence was his belly. I watched this man walk to the free-throw line, and I saw his belly bounce. Now maybe there’s something wrong with my eyes, but there’s no excuse for an NBA player, a professional athlete on a basketball team to have his stomach bounce.”

Smith concluded his impassioned routine by claiming he hoped to see Williamson turn it around by “giving more effort” and “less chewing” before stating “somebody needed to say it.”

Did they?

Smith seems to believe that turning Williamson into a joke and turning his barbs against the 2019 No. 1 overall pick personal is necessary. But it’s not as if he lacks examples from across sports media for how to analyze or even criticize Williamson more productively.

The latest chapter in the Williamson saga began last Monday, when Charles Barkley went on Inside the NBA to challenge Williamson and his approach to the game.

“He’s not in shape,” Barkley said. “He doesn’t run. He plays the game strictly on talent. He never runs on the fast break. He’s kinda like jogging on offense and defense.”

Barkley then recalled how NBA legend Moses Malone gave him a similar reality check about his conditioning that led to Barkley turning his career around. While Barkley and the Inside crew certainly can cross the line from time to time, they mostly approach criticism from a foundation of lived experience, what’s happening on the court, and how the athlete can improve.

On Wednesday of last week, JJ Redick joined the list of Williamson’s critics. As Williamson’s former teammate and one of the only people to get Williamson on for an interview (twice), Redick argued Williamson had never taken his pro career seriously and that the Pelicans’ patience may be running thin. Redick expressed his hope and belief that it wasn’t too late for Williamson to turn things around.

By Thursday, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a report from beat writer Christian Clark confirming Pelicans brass was frustrated with Williamson’s failure to commit to a diet and training regimen. That gave Inside the NBA grounds to tear into Williamson even more strongly after another clunker in the semifinal.

As the NBA Cup concluded and a new week began, other popular hosts like Bill Simmons and Dan Le Batard weighed in with their typical perspectives. Nobody else made jokes about eating tables or belly bounces. Just Smith.

So when Smith went on his podcast Monday and punctuated his sarcastic, gleeful ripping of Williamson by pointing out that “somebody needed to say it,” we know what Smith meant. He believes his approach is necessary. He watched as Barkley, Redick and a beat reporter did their job and effectively said “hold my beer.”

Smith then did exactly what he constantly denies doing, turning an athlete’s career and personal travails into catnip for his audience for the sake of content.

This type of commentary from Smith is what was at the center of his tired monthslong “beef” with Le Batard this year. Le Batard’s primary point was that Smith degrades athletes for personal gain. And he was right.

“If you’re turning something on television into a personal back-and-forth for entertainment value … I’ve never seen anything like that on television before from a journalist, where you’re incentivized to do it,” Le Batard said in September.

That certainly applies here. Notice that Smith saved his juiciest diatribes against Williamson for YouTube, where he’s trying to develop an audience away from ESPN Radio and potentially create a golden parachute for himself. The Williamson stuff isn’t even how Smith started either of his shows, but there it was in the video title anyway.

Smith knows from a career as a columnist, radio host and TV debater that being salacious is his lane. Barkley has a platform to talk with millions as a Basketball Hall of Famer on TNT and Redick speaks as a recently retired NBA veteran. But while he knows the game well enough to match those guys’ tenor, Smith has made the decision that this is how he wins: twist the knife inserted by others, go a step further than anyone else will, and take credit for the fallout.

In the aftermath of Smith’s comments, internet shows from Gilbert Arenas, Dan Dakich and Chris Broussard took their cue from Smith and barnacled onto the reaction economy around Williamson’s weight controversy. Mission accomplished.

This week, Williamson responded to Smith.

“If it comes from a place where they just want to see me do better, thank you,” Williamson said. “If it comes from anywhere else, everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, can’t control that.”

Williamson was then asked what it’s like being at the center of NBA attention in such a negative light.

“It’s been like that since I was 16 years old, since I came onto the scene,” Williamson said. “If I want to be one of the best players in the league, if we don’t win in a big moment or something bad happens, then that’s to be expected.”

In his first game since the NBA Cup loss, Williamson scored 36 points and had just one turnover in a Pelicans win.

Tuesday on First Take, Smith revealed he had a “good conversation” with Williamson’s stepfather about what Smith said.

“I am not stuttering. Zion Williamson if you’re listening, you’re welcome,” Smith said. “You said if somebody is saying it to you because they are rooting for you and want it and it is coming from a good place because they want you to succeed, then thank you. That is what I was doing.”

The final step on the Smith checklist is complete. Smith may not have been stuttering, but he was mincing his words. He attacked Williamson as a person, made a joke out of his physical appearance and lifestyle, and then backed off. As if it never happened.

Big picture, Williamson is not an NBA athlete who segment producers would fawn over. He was a top pick four years ago who is inconsistent for a middling team. When is the last time you heard Smith talk about Deandre Ayton or James Wiseman?

No, Williamson was on the rundown because Smith thinks he’s fat. And calling someone fat is funny. Until their stepfather calls.

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.