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The Feats of Zion

It’s hard to capture the Duke phenom in words, so we tried stats instead. Here are the numbers behind one of the greatest freshman seasons in college basketball history.

Getty Images/Elias Stein

It’s not supposed to work this way. The most explosive athlete isn’t supposed to be the most well-rounded player on the floor. The guy who might have lost a tooth on the backboard shouldn’t execute fundamentals like a veteran.

But don’t tell this to Zion Williamson. We’ve never seen an athlete quite like him. You’ve surely heard the Duke freshman’s praises sung a million times by now. But a close look at the data brings the details of Zion’s particular brand of dominance to life. Here’s a close look at just how special one of the most exciting draft prospects in years has been ahead of Saturday’s marquee matchup between the top-ranked Blue Devils and the no. 4 Virginia Cavaliers.

The Freak Athlete

Let’s start with the most discussed aspect of Zion’s game: his athleticism. Thanks to Jared Dubin’s excellent NBA combine database, we can look at various measures of athleticism for every prospect tested since 2000. If you believe the claims that the 6-foot-7, 285-pound Williamson has a 45-inch vertical (I do), he blows away the maximum vertical leaps of every other prospect listed at 240 pounds or more. Only Miles Plumlee and Semi Ojeleye (coincidentally, also former Blue Devils) even cracked 40 inches among the players in this group. Bigs known for being explosive leapers such as Blake Griffin (248 pounds, 35.5-inch max vert) and Dwight Howard (240, 35.5) come up about 40 pounds lighter and 10 inches shy of Williamson. In fact, the only player in the entire database who had a better vert than Williamson was Kansas’s Kenny Gregory, an explosive 6-foot-5 wing who weighed 85 pounds less than Williamson and leaped just half an inch higher.

But Williamson is more than just an athlete.

The Efficient Shooter

Sports-Reference’s college basketball database contains statistics for every notable player, plus most of the ones from every major program, dating back to 1947-48. In that time, Williamson’s 68.4 percent effective field goal percentage is the third best posted by any 20-point scorer. Only Keith “Mister” Jennings (a 5-foot-7 point guard from East Tennessee State who would later play for Don Nelson’s Golden State Warriors) and Michael Bradley (the center who played one season at Villanova in the early 2000s after transferring from Kentucky) ever posted better numbers.

Effective field goal percentage accounts for the added value of 3-point shots, and thus rewards perimeter shooters like Jennings, who hit an absurd 59.2 percent of 142 3-point attempts in the aforementioned season. If we instead focus on 2-point field goal percentage, Williamson’s 73.9 percent is the second best by any 20 PPG scorer since 1947-48, trailing only Oregon State’s Steve Johnson, who shot 74.6 percent en route to 21 PPG in 1980-81. Johnson, a 23-year-old senior at the time of that feat, went on to have a 10-year NBA career and is the seventh-most-accurate shooter in NBA history.

Williamson’s historic 2-point shooting is largely driven by his work around the rim. Jeff Haley’s excellent site Hoop-Math has been calculating play-by-play-based shooting stats since 2012. After Monday’s loss to Syracuse, Williamson was 111-for-144 (77.1 percent) on shots at the rim. That’s tied (with Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ) for the most shots made at the rim and is the fifth-best field goal percentage at the rim among players with 100-plus attempts there. The four players ahead of him all had fewer attempts, and also had more than half of their makes at the rim assisted. Williamson is unique in that he’s an incredible finisher, but he also creates a lot of his opportunities at the cup, shedding helpless defenders along the way. He’s been assisted on just 44.1 percent of his 111 makes at the basket.

Among players with 150-plus field goals made at the rim—a number Williamson is easily on pace to eclipse—who were assisted on fewer than half of their makes, Williamson’s 77.1 percent shooting would be the best since at least 2012. Ben Simmons (2015-16) and T.J. Warren (2013-14) are the only two players meeting those qualifiers over that span to shoot over 75 percent.

Best FG% At Rim (Min. 100 FGA at Rim)

Players With Fewer Than 50% of FG At Rim Assisted Since 2012 FG% FG-FGA Season
Players With Fewer Than 50% of FG At Rim Assisted Since 2012 FG% FG-FGA Season
Zion Williamson 77.1 111-144 2018-19
T.J. Warren 75.9 183-241 2013-14
Ben Simmons 75.2 158-210 2015-16
www.hoop-math.com

The All-around Performer

Zion is filling up the box score with averages of 21.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.9 blocks. This gives him a chance to become the only freshman on record to average at least 20-9-2-2-1. If you remove the assists minimum, and lessen the steals minimum to just one, he’s joined by Wayman Tisdale (three-time All-American), Lionel Simmons (National Player of the Year and third-leading scorer in Division I history), Kevin Durant (NBA MVP), Michael Beasley (All-American), and Lamine Diane (fellow 2018-19 freshman having a monster season at Cal State Northridge). Also of note is that Williamson is doing all of this in just 26.8 minutes a game. Of the other players who have averaged at least 20 points, 9 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block, regardless of class, each has averaged at least 30 MPG. If Williamson is able to bump his rebounding and shot-blocking numbers just slightly, he could become just the fifth player on record to average at least 20 PPG, 10 RPG, 2 BPG, and 2 SPG. None of the previous four (Lionel Simmons, David Robinson, Ron Harper, or Carey Scurry) did it in a major conference.

It bears repeating: Williamson is averaging only 26.8 minutes per game. Per Sports-Reference’s college basketball site, no player since Bo Kimble in 1987-88 has averaged 20-plus points in so few minutes. That season, Kimble averaged 22.2 points in 26.3 minutes on a Loyola Marymount team that averaged over 110 points (fourth most in a season in D-I history). Though we don’t have reliable possessions data from 31 years ago, it’s safe to say that Kimble had plenty more scoring opportunities in Paul Westhead’s “System” than Williamson does.

“Advanced” Skills

Perhaps the most impressive statistics for Williamson are the ones that aim to capture overall value. The Sports-Reference site calculates John Hollinger’s player efficiency rating for all D-I players back to 2009-10. Over that span, he’s the only player with at least 400 minutes played to post a PER over 40.

Offensive and defensive ratings are calculated by Sports-Reference for all college basketball players dating back to 2009-10. Offensive rating estimates the points produced by each player per 100 possessions, while defensive rating estimates the points per 100 possessions each player allows. Williamson has a 134.1 offensive rating and an 80.5 defensive rating. The gap between those numbers is simply astounding. Among players with 20-plus minutes per game since 2009-10, only Anthony Davis in 2011-12 and Cincinnati’s Gary Clark last season have had larger gaps. However, usage rate (the rate at which a player uses offensive possessions) is important context for offensive rating, since high efficiency is more difficult for high-usage players. So it’s important to note that Williamson’s gap is the best on record for a high-usage player.

Largest Gap Between ORtg & DRtg

Players with Min. 20 MPG Since 2009-10 Gap Season USG%
Players with Min. 20 MPG Since 2009-10 Gap Season USG%
Anthony Davis 58.4 2011-12 18.8
Gary Clark 53.7 2017-18 20.4
Zion Williamson 53.5 2018-19 28.7
www.sports-reference.com/cbb

Box plus-minus, which can be calculated back to 2010-11, might just do the best job when it comes to encapsulating overall value and identifying outstanding players. The stat estimates how much better (or worse) a given player is than the average player over 100 possessions. Williamson is the only player to post a BPM over 20—meaning he’s more than 20 points better than an average player over 100 possessions—and the players behind him on the list are a who’s who of great college basketball players this decade.

Best Box Plus-Minus

Players (Min. 400 MP) Since 2010-11 BPM Season
Players (Min. 400 MP) Since 2010-11 BPM Season
Zion Williamson 20.2 2018-19
Brandon Clarke 18.9 2018-19
Anthony Davis 18.7 2011-12
Karl-Anthony Towns 17.3 2014-15
Victor Oladipo 17.0 2012-13
www.sports-reference.com/cbb

Davis, Towns, and Oladipo were each All-NBA players last season. The eye test says it won’t be long before Williamson joins them. And, in this case, the numbers absolutely agree.

Mike Lynch is managing stathead at Sports-Reference.com.