It requires not a love for stats, nor the gift of athletic assessment, or really more than a cursory interest in sports to know that what Zion Williamson is doing at Duke this season as a freshman is special. Merely turn on your television or scroll through headlines and you’re assailed with Zion plaudits and all manner of coverage announcing him as not the next, but perhaps the current, great thing. And for what he’s doing at a collegiate level, at such a young age, against the highest level of competition he can play, it is irrefutably special. But with the knowledge that all manners of special become mundane once they are met with a reasonable facsimile, the question becomes whether or not Zion’s special is that once-in-a-generation kind of unique, or if he’s just an amazing athlete currently playing against not so amazing athletes?
Watch Zion play and there is no question that he is the most tantalizing player on the floor – any night, against any opponent right now. But this is at the collegiate level, and assessing Zion as a professional prospect becomes a murky exercise in contradictions. Williamson is an oversized pogo stick with Fred Astaire’s feet and Fred Flintstone’s body, who lacks length, has a motor stuck in overdrive, but lacks great conditioning, who can’t shoot from the perimeter, but whose efficiency is through the roof.
Simply stated: Zion is a shot-swatting, rim-rattling, hip-swiveling, paint-dwelling, dime-dropping, sweat-drenched aircraft carrier. And both because of, and due to, these characteristics, he is the most difficult player in the upcoming draft to project as an NBA talent.
Zion’s an oversized small forward in an undersized power forward’s body, and while the league is continuously becoming more amorphous in terms of roles as players occupy slotted skills rather than defined positions, Zion’s physical limitations in terms of length and inability to shoot make him a tough player to place on an NBA roster set to play in-line with current stylistic trends. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Zion can’t find success, hell, he could be a Barkley-like force in the league, bucking convention both by substance of haunches and skill of play. But for a team drafting with the first overall pick, a team undoubtedly devoid of complimentary players who can compensate for Zion’s glaring deficiencies, the notion of building a team around his skill-set in a league that values length and shooting above all else, is either an exercise in abject consternation or prescient genius.
Seeing Zion in person, all smiles, hops, intimidation, and sweat, it’s hard not to fall in love with what he could mean to a franchise. Williamson obliterates shots with his help side defense, clears the lane just by the threat of his presence on the fast break, dominates the boards, has great vision, and shows agility that allows him to insinuate his large frame into tight spaces in the paint.
But you also see an undersized power forward (by measures of height, certainly not by heft), who can’t stay with a quick ball handler on the perimeter, who won’t be able to feast on help side blocks with the same impunity when guarding the leagues stretch 4’s, who seems to have stamina issues (he goes hard, but he gets winded easily), and a player who relies on the superior distinction of his athleticism above all other things to be a dominant player at the collegiate level.
Now Zion’s motor, court vision, and unselfishness are aided, but in no way are defined by, his superlative athleticism. Yet, those skills unto themselves would not be enough to distinguish Williamson if he weren’t a 270 pound freight train capable of flight—he would be the second heaviest player in the league right now, following only Boban. But the question is whether or not those skills will be enough to keep him figuratively head and shoulders above the competition (he will certainly reside in that space literally) from a performance standpoint once the athleticism gap is not nearly as wide.
And that’s the challenge if you’re a franchise staring down the barrel of the number one overall pick.
Barring a catastrophic injury, or another Anthony Bennett-esque lapse in judgement, Zion would seem the consensus number one overall, laying massive pressure upon the lap of the perspective GM drafting him knowing that he may be swallowing a poison pill. All number one overall picks come with the weight of being a potential franchise maker or breaker, but few have ever entered the league as the first pick with a such a difficult to quantify and project mesh of athletic gifts and physical limitations.
Zion could be a star
Zion could be out of his depth
Zion could be a bust
Right now it feels that the odds for each outcome aren’t nearly as disparate as any GM burdened with the first overall pick would like. I say burdened because the will of the people have anointed Zion as the number one pick, and no GM who wants to keep his job can afford to pass on him if he does becomes a superstar. But each of those GM’s undoubtedly fear that his limitations could just as easily shift the odds away from that desired outcome and their franchise could be saddled with a guy that can’t play at a star level in the current NBA.
Surround Zion with shooters, and a primary playmaker that can get him the ball in the open court or on the move in the half court, and he potentially could be a force in the league. But the teams drafting at the top don’t have such luxuries. And trying to imagine shoe-horning Zion into some of those rosters, forfeiting the positional flexibility, length and perimeter shooting that is so en vogue right now, shows just how much more of a risk he could be because of his limitations.
Zion by pure will of force could render all the questions about himself moot. With his power and touch around the rim, not to mention his abilities in the open court, he could be a force the likes with which the league hasn’t seen since Barkley came hurtling through as an overweight, undersized, below average shooting power forward; sound familiar? But Barkley played in an era that was far more forgiving to those that couldn’t shoot, and Chuck wasn’t enervating himself defending out to 30 feet for 35 minutes a night as Zion will have to do in the current iteration of the league. And because Zion isn’t a natural fit size-wise, it’s incredibly difficult to select him, feeling that the tangibles are weighted heavily enough to hope that the skills can catch-up, as often happens with guys who are picked more for their athleticism than their ability.
All of this converges to make Zion perhaps the most perplexingly enticing number one pick that league has seen since Michael Olowakandi. And unfortunately for Zion, and Elgin Baylor, we all know how that pick turned out.