Assessing Zion Williamson

Brian Spurlock / USA TODAY Sports

I’m not exactly sure what to say about Duke freshman forward Zion Williamson that hasn’t already been said. He’s caught the attention of sports media for good. A 6’7″, 280-pound 18-year old with the explosive athleticism and quickness of a springy point guard and the IQ and playmaking abilities of a veteran do not come around very often — or at all, for that matter. He’s often compared to LeBron James (every top prospect is compared to LeBron, to be fair), Charles Barkley, and Shawn Kemp, or a mix of the three. Any sportswriter whose ’19 mock draft has him picked anywhere but first overall is (rightfully) accused of being a contrarian for the sake of it.

I wouldn’t blame you if you were wondering if Zion is really that good — ESPN has been wrong about these guys before, after all. Remember how stacked the 2014 draft was supposed to be? I sure do. It’s fair to be skeptical. But this time, I think the hype surrounding Zion Williamson is justifiable. He’s going to be a star. Here’s why I think so.

When considering how good a future NBA player will be, some stock is placed into how “NBA-ready” a player is; will his skills immediately translate into the NBA? Does he shoot well enough now that, if he were to play in an NBA game today, he could be relied on to make shots consistently? And what if he’s not NBA-ready? Are his weaknesses bound to be exploited at the professional level? Does he have the physical tools to be good in the future? In the case of Williamson, he has shown NBA-ready talent across the board and then some. The (very few) things that catch the nitpicking critic’s eyes are not worth worrying over.

To simply say Zion Williamson leads the ACC in many catch-all advanced statistics would be doing Zion a disservice. He leads so far ahead of the following players that I can only describe his dominance as prime-Bondseque. For example, he leads all ACC players in Win Shares per 48 minutes with .357 WS/48, 22% more than runner-up junior De’Andre Hunter. The distance between first and second place (.77 points) is about the same distance between second place and twelfth. He leads in Offensive Box Plus-Minus with 13.1 OBPM, where Cameron Johnson, a UNC senior, places second with 10.1. And my favorite: in Box Plus-Minus, Zion Williamson ranks first with a 21.3 BPM. This is currently the single-season record since it was recorded in 2010 — Anthony Davis, now second-place, has an 18.67 BPM. The distance between Williamson’s BPM and Davis’s BPM is more than the distance between Davis’s BPM and seventh-place Sindarius Thornwell’s in 2017 (16.17).

Of course, stats are far from everything when it comes to the draft. Some of the most legendary players at the collegiate level often don’t pan out in the NBA, while some of the shaky prospects end up dominating. An NBA prospect’s success in the league is a product of many different factors — development, team fit, coaching, stability, and luck, for instance. But Zion Williamson’s performance reaches another unforeseen level of dominance. The skill-set he has displayed is not only remarkable, but he may be the most polished rookie the NBA has seen on both ends of the floor. Ever.

Zion Williamson’s ability to get to the rim, whether in a transition opportunity, in an offensive set, or in the post, is unmatched for an 18-year old. He’s able to handle the ball effectively and doesn’t require a ton of fancy moves to the rim (He has those moves, anyway). When guarded by a weaker defender — literally every time in college and most of the time in the NBA — he can bully his way to the rim, forcing the defense to either foul or double-team him. Otherwise, he’ll score — he’s converted 80.4% of his shots at the rim, per The Stapien’s shot chart analysis. The gravity Zion commands from help defenders on a drive leaves plenty of room for an open shooter, and Zion has the court vision and passing ability to find one, sporting a solid 16.6% assist percentage despite Duke’s outside shooting woes.

His ability to get up and grab boards is absolutely insane. He has a pogo-like second jump, getting up with ease to clean the glass and create second chances where second chances wouldn’t otherwise happen with most other bigs. Check out this highlight. The whole team closes in on Williamson as he spins to the bucket. By the time he puts up his first shot, four guys are in the paint, with one more closing in. As a college freshman myself, I can only wonder what I’d do if Zion posted me up, aside from taking an ice bath afterward. Anyway, Zion leads Duke with a 16.1% rebounding percentage.

Zion’s defensive instincts are much improved from his high school days, as well. He is adept, quick enough to guard just about anybody, and smart enough to time his opponent’s shot so he can rise up for the block. He’s the anchor of Duke’s elite defense, with a team-best 84.5 defensive rating. Opponents will stray from the rim when Zion is near, respecting Zion’s shot-blocking/altering ability. And when Zion’s on the court, no pass is safe. NotOnePassIsSafe. The correlation between a player’s steal rate in college and their success in the NBA is remarkably solid. This can likely be inferred since, to rack up steals, you need to have the awareness and on-the-go instincts to percept your opponent’s next move. And Zion’s steal rate, 4.2%, would lead amongst some of the NBA’s most valuable stars today. Also, Zion has some of the best shot-blocking highlights I’ve ever seen. Watch Zion get up to block Virginia wing De’Andre Hunter’s corner three. Look where Zion starts when Hunter catches the ball. Are you kidding me? And here’s Zion blocking a shot off the glass against Princeton, his hand reaching halfway up the backboard and his forehead hitting the corner. (I swear that this article isn’t my excuse to watch Zion Williamson highlights.)

And what about Zion’s shooting? Zion’s biggest critics are all over his outside shot. Surely his lack of a three-ball will be a hindrance to his offensive versatility… But will it? We’ve seen Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo, two point-forwards lacking an effective outside shot, absolutely dominate despite it. Why can’t the same be true of Zion? In a switch-heavy era of defense, Zion only needs to be surrounded by a pair of solid outside shooters to either bully his way to the basket or kick out to the corner. His 67% free throw percentage is far from great, but he’s not so poor at hitting free throws that he’s worth hacking, and he’s been slowly improving from deep, too: since the new year, Zion has attempted 2.3 three-point attempts per game, knocking down 36.7% of them. I don’t want to say Zion Williamson is going to be Miami LeBron reincarnated… but he could be.

The primary concern in my eyes is Zion’s durability. Could Zion withstand an 82-game season injury-free? A 280-pound frame with springs for legs makes for an ACL surgery waiting to happen. But thanks to the NBA’s recent advancements in lengthening the season, minimizing back-to-backs and providing extra days of rest for players, I don’t think Zion will need to worry much. Besides, the guy is a tank. You can’t stop Zion — you can only hope to contain him.

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