Duke should have lost its second-round matchup with UCF on Sunday. It’s just that all the bounces went the Blue Devils’ way in the final minutes of the 77-76 win. They were outschemed by UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins, a former Duke player and assistant, who exposed every hole in their roster. Zion Williamson was dominant, with 32 points on 12-of-24 shooting, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists, but the degree of difficulty on his performance was too high. UCF used Duke’s greatest weakness to its advantage: Zion’s supporting cast can’t shoot well enough to space the floor for him, which allowed Dawkins to park Tacko Fall, a 7-foot-6, 270-pound shot-blocking machine, at the front of the rim. It’s a lesson not just for Coach K, but for the NBA team that drafts Zion: Put as much 3-point shooting around the star big man as possible.
The story line coming into the game was the matchup between Zion and Tacko. It did not disappoint. Fall is more than just incredibly tall. He’s a smart player who moves well for a player his size, and he forced Zion to work harder for his points than he has had to all season. Duke’s freshman superstar shot 7-of-18 when Tacko was on the floor on Sunday, including having his shot blocked three times by the senior center, and 5-of-6 when Fall was off. The Blue Devils played right into Tacko’s hands. They didn’t have the personnel to force him out of the paint and allow Williamson either an open lane to the basket or the chance to play him one-on-one.
Tacko didn’t actually guard Zion. UCF spent most of the first half in a zone, but Zion’s ability to make plays and score out of the high post forced the Knights to play man defense in the second half. Tacko alternated between guarding two limited big men who couldn’t space the floor (juniors Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden) when Duke played traditional lineups and playing a one-man zone by “guarding” either freshman point guard Tre Jones or sophomore Jordan Goldwire when the Blue Devils went small, ignoring the two on the perimeter and daring them to do something on offense. That allowed Tacko to shadow Williamson all over the floor, playing as the second line of defense without needing to guard his own man.
Zion needs the big man playing next to him to shoot 3s. It hasn’t been much of an issue in college because he can still use his freakish combination of size (6-foot-7 and 285 pounds), athleticism, and skill to create a clean look at the basket in traffic. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Zion is in the 97th percentile of players when scoring around the rim this season. He hadn’t faced any help-side defenders as good as Tacko, who could cover up Bolden or DeLaurier while still helping on Williamson. If either of the Duke centers could shoot, UCF would have had to make a more difficult decision on defense.
Zion didn’t have an outlet when driving to the rim. He is a better decision-maker than his poor ratio of assists (2.1 per game) to turnovers (2.3) this season indicates. The problem is that he doesn’t have many shooters to pass to. The Blue Devils are no. 39 in the country in 3-point attempts (23.9 per game), and are all the way down at no. 331 in 3-point percentage (30.7). They don’t have a legitimate stretch big man. Junior Jack White was supposed to fill that role, but he was shooting only 28.4 percent from 3 on 2.9 attempts per game this season before tearing his hamstring in the ACC tournament.
Even going small doesn’t make a difference because they don’t have four good 3-point shooters on their roster, regardless of position. Freshmen R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish have been inconsistent shooters and decision-makers all season. They combined to go 11-of-23 against UCF, and Reddish was in foul trouble for most of the game. Sophomore wing Alex O’Connell is the only member of the Blue Devils rotation shooting better than 33 percent from 3, and he’s fallen out of favor with the coaching staff, receiving a DNP-CD in the UCF game. The only other perimeter players that Coach K could turn to on Sunday were Jones (23.2 percent from 3 on 2.8 attempts per game) and Goldwire (12.5 percent from 3 on 0.8 attempts per game).
Coach K has to find answers over the next two weeks. While no one in the Sweet 16 has a player like Tacko, they can all copy the rest of the UCF formula. It was an NCAA twist on the scheme that the Warriors used to beat the Grizzlies in the 2015 NBA playoffs, when they played a one-man zone against Tony Allen with Andrew Bogut. The genius of that strategy is that it turns a strength into a crippling weakness. The Blue Devils need to play Jones, an elite playmaker and perimeter defender, even if he isn’t making shots. Either Goldwire steps up, or they have to turn back to O’Connell and find a way to hide him on defense.
The only other option is having Zion shoot 3s. He was 3-for-7 from behind the arc, by far the most he has attempted in a game all season. It is a shot that any defense would gladly concede. Williamson is shooting 74.9 percent from 2 on 10.9 attempts per game, and 33.3 percent from 3 on 2.0 attempts per game. He is only comfortable shooting when his feet are set and he is open, as he has taken only 11 jumpers off the dribble this season. It is the least aesthetically pleasing part of his game. He puts a weird spin on the ball that gives it a line-drive trajectory. His poor free throw shooting numbers (65.0 percent on 6.4 attempts per game) also indicate that he doesn’t have great touch from the perimeter.
One of the only questions about projecting Zion to the next level is how much his poor shooting will impact him. He could be the next in a line of point forwards who have succeeded without being great shooters, but he doesn’t have the height or reach of players like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons. Zion is 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan. It’s hard for players with those physical dimensions to make a living around the rim in the NBA, no matter how good they are athletically. He won’t face anyone quite as large as Tacko at the next level, but a shot-blocker like Rudy Gobert will cause him issues as a help-side defender. Zion will not always be able to power through someone as long as Gobert, which is why it will be important for the team that drafts him to pair him with a stretch big man.
What the Bucks have done with Giannis should be the model. They went from losing in the first round of the playoffs last season to having the best record (55-19) and net rating (plus-9.1) in the NBA by embracing a four-out offense around their superstar. Zion will need his version of Brook Lopez, a 7-footer who is shooting 37.1 percent from 3 on 6.4 attempts per game this season. There is no easy answer for the defense when they either have to play Giannis one-on-one, or give up an open 3 for Lopez. This season has been a far cry from past seasons, when Milwaukee played non-shooters like Greg Monroe and John Henson, NBA versions of Bolden and DeLaurier, at center.
The adjustment that NBA defenses have made to Milwaukee in the second half of the season is switching assignments so that their center guards Giannis inside and a forward checks Lopez at the 3-point line. Freakishly large and athletic interior defenders like Gobert and Deandre Ayton have given Giannis some trouble. Those are the types of players who may end up guarding Zion at the next level, regardless of what types of lineups his NBA team puts around him. That is why the 3-point shot could be so important to his development. Gobert would much rather sag off Zion and wait for him at the rim, like Tacko did on Sunday, than extend out on defense and chase him around the perimeter.
Zion has answers, though, which we saw in the final moments of the win over UCF. He’s more than just an athlete. He also has the basketball IQ to make the most of his physical gifts. His ability to change speeds and contort his body in the air makes him a magnet for fouls, and it was the trump card in his matchup with Tacko. Williamson drew four fouls on the big man on Sunday, limiting him to only 25 minutes of playing time, and fouled him out on an and-1 with 10 seconds left.
Zion has a usage rate of 28.5 this season and a foul rate of .495, meaning that he is taking almost half as many free throw attempts (6.4 per game) as he is field goal attempts (13.0). There are only two players in the NBA this season who can match those numbers: Giannis and Joel Embiid. Zion still has more college basketball to play before he faces his future rivals, though. Even a player with his talent can’t guarantee a spot in the Final Four, much less an NCAA title. The Blue Devils have to find some way to space the floor. Every team they face should pack the paint to force Zion to pass. Either his teammates will knock down open shots, or Duke will lose.