Before the 2019 NBA Draft arrives, Peachtree Hoops broke down more than 75 available prospects with an eye toward what the Atlanta Hawks may look to do in late June.
The final edition centers on Duke star Zion Williamson.
There’s very little to be said about Zion Williamson that hasn’t been said at this point. He came into the year as one of the top collegiate prospects but was behind Duke teammate R.J. Barrett on most boards. That didn’t take long to rectify itself, as Williamson put up the sort of numbers in his freshman year that make you double-check the formulas to make sure they’re calculating properly.
His 40.8 PER is the highest for any qualifying player since they began measuring PER in college basketball in 2009. His 70 percent true shooting is absolutely unreal for a major conference player.
He’s truly one of the best draft prospects to come through the process in NBA history, alongside names like LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the modern era as far as surefire No. 1 picks go. There’s no doubt at all how Adam Silver will open proceedings on Thursday, with the New Orleans Pelicans taking Williamson with the No. 1 overall choice.
The primary trait that pops off the screen with Williamson is his insane athleticism. He’s the best athlete in the draft by a significant margin and has a good chance of being one of the five or ten best athletes in the league as soon as he acclimates to the NBA game. He’s a very dangerous combination of explosively and functionally athletic; he’ll jump over the square of the backboard to bring down a lob but also navigates tight areas well and is quick laterally across the floor on both ends. His athleticism shines through in transition, where he’s nearly unstoppable due to his combination of size and speed.
Williamson’s size really sets him apart from other athletes at the NBA level. Standing 6’7 with a 6’11 wingspan isn’t overly special, but Williamson weighs in at 285 pounds, which is just unreal for a player with his burst. For reference, there was just one player listed at more than 285 pounds last year in the NBA: Philadelphia’s Boban Marjanovic. To say Williamson is one of a kind underrates that phrase; he has the sort of athleticism that’s going to make opposing defenders shrug at one another, as if to say, “Well, what do you want me to do?”
Given the sort of shots he got during his one year at Duke, Williamson might just be the best finisher in NCAA history. He hit 75 percent of his two-point shots this past season despite not having the overwhelming height around the rim. He was a Giannis Antetokounmpo-like force at the rim in college. There will be stronger and smarter defenders at the next level, but 75 percent is still 75 percent. It’s an unreal number, like most of his other numbers. And to think he was playing in a poor offense with ill-fitting personnel and very little semblance of actual set plays to put him in position to succeed – he finished a grand total of 22 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball handler and a near-criminal seven as the roll man. Suffice to say that he’ll run quite a bit more pick-and-roll as both the ball handler and the roll man in the NBA, where his head coach will actively look for ways to help him succeed, rather than holding him back like Duke’s coaches and personnel did.
It’s easy to focus on Williamson’s athleticism and forget about what’s between the ears. He reads the game very well as both a passer and defender. He keeps the ball moving offensively and sees the right passes in pick-and-roll, though sometimes he doesn’t possess the technical skill passing the ball to execute what he sees. More experience in pick-and-roll, both as the ball handler and playmaker on the short roll, will flesh out his playmaking skills. The attention he’s sure to draw in isolation will also help him read NBA defenses and find the right pass.
If there’s one criticism about Williamson’s physical profile, it’s that his hands aren’t quite as big as you’d like them to be, which manifests itself as a problem in a few ways. The aforementioned passing becomes a little bit more difficult with an inability to truly control the ball at a high level. His handle suffers from a similar issue. Handling in traffic may be a problem for him throughout his career as a result of his smaller hands. Rebounding is by no means a problem area for him, as he’s able to leap out of the gym to high-point the ball, but as his athleticism fades with age, his ability to hold onto the ball among the game’s biggest and strongest players may become an issue.
Williamson is a terrifying defensive player at this stage in his career. He’s not just fast in a straight line in transition, he’s lightning quick north and south as well as east and west, with an ability to close space much faster than anybody would reasonably anticipate. His closing speed and leaping ability will afford him the opportunity to pounce on unsuspecting shooters and swat their jumpers into the crowd. He’s going to produce some truly outstanding defensive highlights throughout his career.
There are some concerns with Williamson’s game, but they’re more like footnotes than full-blown weaknesses. The largest concern surrounds his outside shooting, which consists of awkward mechanics and a lack of confidence in the jumper. He may never get there as an outside shooter, which would hamper some of what he can bring to the table as a team’s primary scoring option, but he’ll have plenty of time to figure out how to put together the jumper before he truly needs it at the highest levels of the game.
He’s not the tallest or longest player, though he makes up for these shortcomings with his unreal athleticism. The combination of his outside shooting and physical measurements bring about some issues with regards to his traditional position, but a creative head coach will have no issues finding a spot for him in their lineups. He may not be a traditional center or power forward or small forward, but he’s just a basketball player. Give him the ball and get out of the way or put him as a key cog in a larger offensive system and throw him out there as a forward stopper or let him roam off a non-shooter; there are plenty of ways to use Williamson to get the most out of him without nailing him to a specific position or role.
It’s impossible to give Williamson a comparison. He’s perhaps a slightly smaller version of Antetokounmpo, but with more quickness. He has some shades of Ben Simmons. He has some shades of Draymond Green. He has some shades of LeBron James. A phenomenal human being who works as hard as anybody despite his physical and athletic advantages, Williamson has a chance to be just as good as any of the players to whom he’s compared.