Zion Williamson is having a historic freshman season at Duke with one hand tied behind his back. He’s averaging 22.0 points on 68.1 percent shooting, 9.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.0 steals, and 2.0 blocks per game, and the most astonishing thing about his season thus far is that he could be doing even more. The Blue Devils don’t maximize his strengths. Zion doesn’t get the ball enough for a guy with his combination of size, skill, and athleticism. His potential on a team built around him is off the charts, and he’ll instantly become the focal point of any NBA franchise that drafts him come June. Zion is the latest twist in a line of players that stretches from Ben Simmons to Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. All three have dabbled as point centers. Zion could be the first to do it full-time.
Like his predecessors, Zion is a transcendent athlete. He’s at the opposite end of the physical spectrum from Giannis, who came into the league as a spindly collection of limbs and added muscle over time. Zion, at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, is the answer to the question of what would have happened if LeBron, an all-state wide receiver in high school, had been moved to the defensive line. He’s a different kind of mismatch problem. It’s not just that he can face up slower defenders or back down smaller ones. Almost every defender in college basketball is both slower and smaller than him, and it won’t be much different in the NBA.
Zion is more than just his physical tools, though. He has the mind and the skill set to go with them. Defenders will sag off him and still can’t keep him from getting to the rim and finishing through traffic. He has the footwork and ballhandling ability to create separation off the dribble, the body control to absorb contact in the air, and the touch to score with either hand. He lives at the free throw line, averaging more than half as many free throw attempts per game (6.4) as field goal attempts (12.6). He is shooting 75.1 percent on 2-pointers on 10.7 attempts per game, which shouldn’t be possible for a player who creates so much of his own offense. The only thing holding him back is that he isn’t asked to create more.
Duke is the no. 2 team in the country with a 17-2 record, so it’s hard to criticize Coach K for the way he’s using his players. Nevertheless, the numbers (via Synergy Sports) scream for Zion to be used differently. He’s an unstoppable one-on-one scorer being pigeonholed into a role as an energy big man:
A Breakdown of Zion’s Offense
|Play Type||% of Total Offense||Percentile Nationwide|
|Play Type||% of Total Offense||Percentile Nationwide|
|P&R Ball Handler||5.4||98th|
Zion could handle a much larger diet of pick-and-rolls, isolations, and post-ups. His percentile rankings on those plays would probably go down in a larger sample size, but he’s exactly the type of player who would thrive with more offensive responsibility. Zion rarely makes the wrong decision with the ball, and he doesn’t force the action. The biggest reason that he doesn’t miss many shots is that he’s not taking bad ones. The end result of him getting the ball more often would be more open shots for his teammates. He’s a better decision-maker than his nearly one-to-one average ratio of assists (2.4 per game) to turnovers (2.3) suggests.
The problem is that Duke needs Zion to be a more of a finisher than a playmaker. The Blue Devils don’t have enough outside shooting to stretch the defense: They are tied for no. 310 in the country in 3-point percentage (31.1). The three other members of Zion’s heralded recruiting class have significant holes in their games. Tre Jones is a reluctant outside shooter (28.1 percent from 3 on 1.8 attempts per game), while R.J. Barrett is far too willing (32.0 percent on 6.4 attempts per game). Cam Reddish is their best shooter, but he’s a streaky player who often disappears and is shooting only 33.3 percent on 7.3 attempts per game. They round out their starting lineup with one of two traditional big men (juniors Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier) who don’t space the floor. The Blue Devils don’t have many players whom Zion can create 3s for.
Playing with Barrett, a 6-foot-7 wing who was considered the front-runner to be the no. 1 overall pick before the season, also limits Zion’s opportunities. Barrett is averaging 19.5 field goal attempts per game and is the primary option almost by default. He’s a hyperaggressive scorer whom defenses leave open on the perimeter so the ball naturally winds up in his hands. His shoot first, second, and third style wouldn’t be as much of an issue if he weren’t playing on a team with someone who is so clearly better than him. There are a lot of times when Zion makes the extra pass and the ball never gets back to him. Barrett shot a combined 17-for-55 (30.9 percent) in Duke’s two losses, to Gonzaga and Syracuse, this season. He could end up shooting the Blue Devils out of the NCAA tournament if they aren’t careful.
Jones is more of a traditional point guard who doesn’t hold the ball, but he still takes ballhandling and playmaking opportunities away from Zion. Williamson had an eye-opening performance in a 79-64 win over Pittsburgh last week, when Jones was out with a sprained shoulder. Coach K moved him into a point forward role, and he responded with 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting and seven assists and two turnovers. He controlled the action on both ends of the floor, alternating between scoring at will and picking apart the defense whenever they sent help. It may be the only glimpse we see of him in that type of role until he gets to the NBA. Jones returned to the lineup in Duke’s 66-53 victory over Georgia Tech on Saturday, and the team doesn’t have enough depth to minimize him.
His return did allow Coach K to lean more on small-ball lineups with Zion at the 5. The Blue Devils haven’t used those looks much this season. Zion has spent 126 possessions (out of a total of 608) without either Bolden, DeLaurier, or senior center Antonio Vrankovic next to him, according to the tracking numbers at hooplens.com. The results speak for themselves. The Blue Devils score an average of 1.09 points per possession with Zion on the floor and allow an average of 0.83 points per possession on defense. The former number skyrockets up to 1.21 points per possession in small-ball lineups, while the latter barely budges up to 0.88 points per possession. A lineup with Barrett at the 4 and Zion at the 5 fueled a 21-4 run that blew open the game against Tech. Zion talked it up afterward: “It was taking our two playmakers and putting them in the middle [of the zone], and the defense had to pick their poison. We moved [the ball] around, and now Cam or Tre could shoot.”
The offensive benefits of playing Zion in more space are clear. The key to the success of those lineups is his ability to anchor the defense. He isn’t particularly long (6-foot-10 wingspan), but he’s so powerfully built and explosive that he can still protect the rim. There are times when he looks like Draymond Green: He can bang with bigger players inside, rotate over as a help-side defender, and switch onto smaller players on the perimeter. Zion’s block rate (6.6 percent) puts him right behind Al Horford at no. 31 among the 49 big men drafted in the lottery since 2004, but his steal rate (3.7 percent) is no. 2 behind only Nerlens Noel. Zion creates more turnovers in college than most elite perimeter players. He has a higher steal rate than any of last year’s lottery picks, regardless of position.
The biggest question for the NBA team that drafts him is how much to play him at center. There’s a reason the Warriors only moonlight with Draymond at the 5 in the regular season, and why the Bucks do the same with Giannis. Playing the position is an intense and physical grind, and they are trying to avoid wear and tear on the bodies of their best players. The difference is that Zion will be able to deliver punishment just as much as he will have to take it. Draymond is 50 pounds lighter than him. Zion is listed as weighing more than guys like Steven Adams (7 feet and 265 pounds) and Jusuf Nurkic (7 feet and 275 pounds).
Put it all together, and Zion is the rare young player who should be able to instantly elevate an NBA team. Zion at the 5 would present huge matchup problems. There aren’t many other players at the position who can defend all over the floor while being a primary scorer and playmaker. Surround a player like Zion with four 3-point shooters and someone will always be open. Those types of lineups would allow him to spend the entire game making straight-line drives at the rim. The defense would have to either let Zion play one-on-one in the paint or leave a shooter open.
The model should be what the Bucks do with Giannis. Milwaukee starts him at the 4, but he gets all the benefits of playing in a four-out offense because he plays with a stretch 5 in Brook Lopez, who is shattering the NBA record for most 3-point attempts per game in a season (6.5) from a center. Giannis, like Zion, is an inconsistent outside shooter, but it doesn’t matter if he’s playing in enough space. He can get to the rim and use his length to score over the top of any defender. Zion can do the same thing by using his strength to power through defenders. That ability can be negated if he’s playing in a situation like Simmons in Philadelphia, next to two ball-dominant players who don’t stretch the defense in Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler.
Zion is the most can’t-miss prospect since Anthony Davis in 2012. Davis issued a trade demand to the Pelicans on Monday, but they should probably wait until at least the draft lottery see whether the team that wins the no. 1 overall pick would have any desire to flip it for Davis. Zion’s floor is incredibly high, while his ceiling will depend on whether he can become a better shooter than Giannis or Simmons. There is some reason for optimism. His line-drive form isn’t aesthetically pleasing, but Simmons doesn’t even have the confidence to shoot while Giannis has to do more work to keep his freakishly long limbs from interfering with his shooting motion. Zion’s shot isn’t completely broken: He’s shooting 67.2 percent from the free throw line on 6.4 attempts per game and 28.9 percent from 3 on 1.9 attempts per game. His jumper is the only real hole. Boosting his percentages would put him in the same category as LeBron as a prospect.
Zion has one key advantage over LeBron: timing. LeBron entered the league in a much different era, when teams rarely played small ball and didn’t shoot nearly as many 3s as they do now. The positionless era is in full swing. The biggest and most athletic players on the floor are no longer parked under the basket. They are given the ball and put in as much space as possible. Zion should be given the chance to do that from day one. The easiest way to make your teammates better is to create shots for them on offense and cover for them on defense. Zion’s ability to do both has allowed him to dominate the NCAA. He could be even better in the NBA.