In a game typically dominated by physical specimens, Zion Williamson managed to steal the spotlight, from both his fellow collegiate athletes and the professionals as well. Through a combination of speed, skill, and strength, the stellar Duke freshman not only lived up to the hype but even managed to exceed it. Now, a horde of talent-starved teams will be hoping and praying that the NBA Draft Lottery will bounce in their favor, nabbing the South Carolina native in the process.
What We Already Know
When looking at how Zion’s game will translate at the higher level, it’s best to look beyond basic statistics. However, that’s easier said than done. Obviously, numbers like points per game (22.6), rebounds (8.9) and field goal percentage (68%) stand out as a testament to both Williamson’s playmaking ability and his efficiency. That those averages came in only 30 minutes of game-time only adds to the credibility of Williamson’s per-game marks. But, there are some causes for concern that must be addressed.
One thing that was made abundantly clear during the NCAA Tournament was that the strong suits of Zion’s game do not lie in his shooting touch. This isn’t to say he was a bad shooter or even a mediocre one in college. When you stand at an intimidating 6’7 and 285 pounds, driving to the basket should be your go-to almost every possession.
Williamson was decent enough from long range where he could keep opposing defenses honest. Yet, the Wooden Player of the Year was only a pedestrian 34% shooter from long range. Those numbers will almost assuredly get lower next year with sophisticated NBA defenses designed to prevent the three-ball.
Whether Williamson’s percentage beyond the arc sinks below 30% will be a major factor in his growth as an all-around player.
If threes are an issue, then free-throws are an even more pressing need. Williamson shot a mediocre 64% from the charity stripe. If he wants to command the respect of another team (at least from outside ten feet), then Zion needs to begin taking advantage of their mistakes. This flaw actually proved costly in Duke’s season-ending loss to Michigan State in the Elite Eight. Williamson shot just 2-of-5 from the free throw line, and the Blue Devils lost by just a point. While Duke likely wouldn’t have even been within ten without his efforts, Zion can certainly improve his shooting in clutch moments
The positive for Williamson is that shooting is one of the most easily fixable traits for a young player. Spending an offseason learning how to fine-tune his form and footwork could make all the difference in expanding his range on the court. Then again, this also displays the importance of just where the young phenom will be playing next year. As the altered lottery odds improve the chance for a surprise team to steal a high pick, just about all fourteen non-playoff squads can get excited about the possibility of adding a generational superstar.
Potential Landing Spots
The three main contenders for Zion’s services may be the most important factor in his play next season. The Knicks, owners of the worst record in the Association, have been starving for elite talent for quite some time. Nabbing the Duke phenom will not only improve their future but also their chances of nabbing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in July. The three could create a devastating trio in New York, but such an arrangement would likely push Zion into the role of third option for the time being.
The Suns have their two stars already, but the youth of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton and a weak supporting roster has kept them at the bottom of the Western Conference. Zion may be the piece that Phoenix desperately needs, as the forward slots in nicely between Booker’s elite shooting and Ayton’s strong inside game.
The Cavs, second worst in the East, possess little talent outside of rookie point guard Collin Sexton. A team such as Cleveland, devoid of any stars and with plenty of needs, would be Williamson’s most likely nod towards immediate star status.
Depending on how his workload is managed, Zion could potentially be an All-Star caliber player right from year one. Yet, it’s likely that his rookie year play lingers closer towards his ceiling, that of a highly athletic and effective, but flawed, player. Coaches may find that keeping the rookie fresh by giving him enough rest could lead to increased energy and drive when he checks onto the court.
Outlook and STAT Predictions
While fans can safely expect 16 to 18 points per game (at least), the true measure of Zion’s worth will come from the eye test as opposed to statistics. As there has arguably never been a rookie so physically dominant upon entrance, it will be fascinating to see whether his athleticism will prove overpowering against the pros. What adjustments other teams make will be crucial in defending against an individual as talented as Williamson.
The final aspect to consider is how Williamson will deal with increased media scrutiny and even higher expectations than he had in college. At Duke, he handled himself with confidence and poise, proving doubters wrong with a season that took the sport by storm. In the NBA, eyes will certainly be on him, but maybe not to the extreme like this past year. On the Knicks, if they are able to land a superstar or two in free agency, Zion could actually benefit from not being the face of the franchise. Being able to improve on his game without the added pressure of “franchise savior” could be beneficial to his overall growth.
On the flip side, a move to a team like the Cavaliers could give the rookie the opportunity to take over games with little worry about winning or losing games. Growing into a young core can also give him safety from high-pressure games. Fans can probably rest easy that Williamson will be able to handle himself in the NBA. By all accounts, he is a high-character guy, and front offices will likely fall in love with him during interviews leading up to the draft.
Nobody can reasonably argue that Zion Williamson lacks the potential to be an NBA superstar. But in a sport based around “What have you done for me lately?”, fans and other teams will be watching to see whether he stumbles out of the gate. There will be growing pains like any other young player, but one can safely assume that Zion’s rookie year will bring just as much excitement and awe as he did this past season in Durham.