Zion Williamson is clearly the top prospect in this year’s draft, but can he possibly live up to the lofty expectations that have been created by the unprecedented hype that has surrounded him since November?
Williamson is a southpaw with an amazing combination of size, strength, and athleticism. He has an excellent vertical (reportedly 45 inches), is extremely quick off the floor, and is arguably the best dunker in college basketball. He has excellent quickness in general, along with solid speed. He can make plays off the bounce, and can occasionally knock down a 3. And most of these things are all the more impressive because he weighs close to 300 pounds.
Williamson’s accomplishments as a freshman at Duke this season are too numerous to list, and some of his statistics and metrics are off the charts. According to Sports Reference, Williamson received 24 awards and honors this season, including being a Consensus First-Team All-American and winning the Naismith and Wooden awards. Playing 30 minutes per game, he averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.8 blocks, and 2.1 steals, while shooting 68 percent from the floor. He set an NCAA record for 2-point field goal percentage (74.7 percent), and led the nation with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 37.8, a plus-minus rating of 20.0, and an effective field-goal percentage of 70.8. He also finished second in the country for win shares per 40 minutes (.335) behind Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke (.337).
|Wingspan:||6-10||Vertical:||45 inches (max)|
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- Incredible combination of bulk, strength, and athleticism
- Highly efficient scorer, ranking no worse than the 85th percentile in terms of points per possession (PPP) for all but one of the major scoring categories, including pick-and-roll handler, isolation, and post-ups
- Extremely difficult to stop in the paint – made 76 percent of his shots inside eight feet this season
- Gets to the free-throw line often (6.2 times per game this season)
- Very quick off the floor, and a relentless rebounder – averaged 8.5 boards per game and ranked at the 97 percentile for scoring efficiency on put-backs
- Good handle for a big man
- Effective passer, especially in the open court
- A brick wall when screening, and showed potential on both rolls to the basket and pick-and-pop plays.
- Good all-around defender
- Covers a lot of ground and disruptive on defense – averaged 3.9 combined steals and blocks per game this season
- Energetic, competitive, and a hustler
- Excellent overall metrics – led the nation in PER and plus-minus
- Relies heavily on scoring in the paint – made just 37 of 92 shots (40.2 percent) outside eight feet this season
- Poor shot mechanics – shot 33.8 percent from deep and 64 percent from the foul line
- Little evidence of being able to make jumpers off the bounce – made just two of 12 this season
- Somewhat predictable on drives and in the post – needs to work on his “off” (right) hand
- Decision making and handle are shaky at times – averaged 2.4 turnovers per game
- Struggled defending plays that involved screen action this season
- Body type and injury history are long-term concerns
Saying that Williamson is a highly efficient scorer is an understatement. Among all Division I players with at least 100 possessions this season, he ranked 8th in the country with 1.25 points per possession (PPP), which put him at the 99th percentile. He ranked no worse than the 85th percentile for all types of plays except spot-up, where he ranked at the 47th percentile.
Williamson did most of his damage close to the basket this season. He made 76 percent of his 343 shots inside eight feet, and those shots accounted for 79 percent of his attempts. In terms of points per possession, he ranked at the 99th percentile as a post-up scorer, and at the 97th percentile scoring around the basket (not including post-ups).
Williamson’s efficiency around the basket is due to his superior strength, size, and vertical combined with excellent mobility, body control, and quickness. Unlike many other prospects, he has little trouble finishing at the rim, and he has a soft touch on his runners when further away. On lobs, he regularly catches balls that are far from and well above the basket, often with two hands. He draws a ton of fouls, and absorbs contact extremely well; in fact, defenders often bounce off of him. He can finish with either hand, though he is reluctant to use his right. And as an offensive rebounder, he is very difficult to box out, and his outstanding vertical explosiveness allows him to snatch balls above everyone else and then rise up again for put-back scores.
Williamson was most efficient this season when posting up, even though his game in this area is fairly basic and features very few hooks and fade-aways. He can score from either block, but he heavily favors turning with his right shoulder and finishing with his left hand. Despite being predictable, the Duke freshman was highly successful in the post by making very decisive and extremely quick moves, in combination with his other talents.
Williamson was far more than a post-up player this season; in fact, post-ups accounted for just 13 percent of his possessions. Combined, cuts to the basket and put-backs accounted for another 30 percent, with most of the remaining scores coming from drives to the basket from various types of situations, such as isolation and transition.
Williamson’s potential to play outside the paint is another facet of his game that separates him from most other big men. At Duke, he excelled in isolation, in transition, and as a pick-and-roll handler, and he also fared well when driving to the basket from spot-up position. He proved to be a more-than-capable playmaker, and he was especially dangerous when firing long-distance passes on the break. However, he did struggle as a jump shooter, and was turnover prone when driving through traffic.
As a driver and a ball handler, Williamson has his limitations, but for his size, his skill is impressive. He is capable of going either direction, but he favors going left; even when he starts to the right, he typically spins back/crosses over to his left. He uses many of the dribble moves and crossover combinations that you might expect from a skilled wing, but his handle can be loose at times, a problem that can be compounded by his tendency to drive into traffic. He often faced a wall of defenders in the paint this past season, and when he forced the issue, he would frequently cough up the ball or take a very difficult shot.
One of the bigger concerns about Williamson’s game is his ability to shoot from midrange and beyond. This season, he made just 37 of 92 shots (40.2 percent) outside of eight feet, including 33.8 percent from deep. He showed very little ability to make jumpers off the bounce, and his shooting mechanics are less than ideal. Williamson shoots a flat ball both from deep and the foul line. At the start of his shots, his guide (right) hand is typically underneath the ball, while his shooting hand is on top. As he raises and rotates the ball to shoot, his left elbow flares out, with his shooting hand not centered underneath the ball (to the side and not square to the target), and with his guide hand partially on top of the ball.
As an overall defender, Williamson ranked at the 84th percentile in terms of fewest points allowed per possession this season. He ranked very high when defending spot-up, isolation, and post-up plays, but was below average vs. pick-and-roll handlers, shooters coming off screens, and pick-and-roll screeners.
For the most part, Williamson plays with great energy and effort on this end of the court. He actually can be rather frenetic, flying all over the floor at times, and that style seems to suit him. And though he plays with an aggressive style, which can occasionally be costly, he often displays good instincts and judgment. Some examples would be anticipating passes and shots, knowing when to closeout hard and when to pull up, and putting himself in good position for defensive rebounds.
Williamson’s athleticism stood out on this end of the floor as well, as he covered a tremendous amount of ground. He constantly made opponents think twice about shooting when he was in the area, and even when he was not close, the shooters were not safe. Some of the blocks that the freshman made this season were astounding, such as starting inside the paint and blocking a corner 3. He can block shots effectively with either hand, which is somewhat rare. His quickness and ability to anticipate also helped him be very disruptive in the passing lanes.
Playing for a Duke team that mostly played man-to-man and regularly switched, Williamson proved that he was more than a shot blocker and a rebounder on the defensive end. For example, in the Blue Devils’ impressive 23-point, second-half comeback vs. Louisville, his defensive energy and ability to harass opponents in the open floor were major factors down the stretch. He also showed that he could reasonably defend even the quickest of guards in the half-court, though he wasn’t immune to being beaten off the dribble or losing his man around screens. When he did have defensive problems, the plays usually involved some type of screen action, such as a pick-and-pop, but I feel those issues mainly involved a lack of awareness, which should improve with more experience.
Intangibles and Miscellaneous
There is no doubt that Williamson plays the game with great energy and effort; in fact, he usually plays with reckless abandon. Under normal circumstances, his style would be a huge plus, but given his body type, the potential for injury has to be a concern. Frequently flying and diving all over the court, he had more than his share of spills and awkward landings this season. He jumps higher than most, he weighs more than most, and though I am not a doctor nor a physicist, I think that it’s pretty safe to say that the impact on his bones, muscles, and ligaments (and shoes) is greater than most.
During his time at Duke, Williamson suffered two injuries that cost him playing time, including the knee sprain that he suffered as a result of the infamous shoe “blow out” vs. North Carolina. He was out for nearly a month due to that knee injury. In 2017, prior to coming to Duke, he was sidelined for significant portions of time due to foot and knee injuries, and in 2018, he suffered a right-hand injury during the McDonald’s All-American Game, and was unable to participate in the Jordan Classic and the Nike Hoop Summit.
Of course, all of those injuries may or may not be related to Williamson’s body type and style of play, but it should also be noted that there were times when he was healthy this season and he seemed to run out of gas. That’s only natural, giving the effort that he does, but in the NBA, the games will be longer and far more numerous.
No matter how you look at it, I think that Zion would be wise to trim down if he wants to have a long and healthy career in the NBA.
Over the course of this past season, we have been fascinated Williamson’s combination of energy, athleticism, size, and strength, but I wonder if we have not been seduced by the optics. In other words, just because we have never seen a player with his type of bulk move this well doesn’t necessarily mean that he will be a great NBA player. So, for example, if he was 50 pounds lighter and did the same things, would we still be as fascinated by him? If not, what exactly do we think those extra 50 pounds will help him do at the next level? Yes, he can absorb contact far better than most, but this is not the NFL, and you cannot run over people on your way to the basket, at least not legally.
There is no doubt that Williamson, if he remains healthy, will be a very impactful scorer around the basket and an excellent shot blocker and rebounder. He also should be a solid all-around defender. However, athleticism only goes so far, and if he wants to be more than that, he will need to expand his game beyond simply going the basket, and he will need to work on things such as his off hand and his jump shot.
Due to Williamson’s uniqueness, it’s very difficult to make a comparison to a current or a former NBA player. Nearly all of the current NBA players who get the majority of their points in the paint are traditional centers and power forwards, such as Utah’s Rudy Golbert and Detroit’s Andre Drummond. The notable exceptions are Bucks’ point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Sixers’ point guard Ben Simmons.
Nearly all of the current NBA players who live in the paint are taller and longer than Williamson. Many of them have more sophisticated post games, and a fair amount of them are far better shooters. Williamson differs from most in that group in that he is a superior athlete, a better ball handler, and he often attacks from the perimeter to get into the paint. He is also a better all-around defender than many of them. Again, Antetokounmpo and Simmons would be the main exceptions. I do not believe that Williamson can match either of those two in terms of ball handling, and both are better playmakers and arguably as athletic. Antetokounmpo is also a better shooter, especially from midrange and off the bounce.
If I had to pick, in terms of size, athleticism, skill set and potential, the best comparison might be the 2009 top overall pick, Blake Griffin, though there are a few critical differences. In his last season at Oklahoma, more than 92 percent of Griffin’s shots came around the basket, including post-ups. He was a good ball handler, and was effective in isolation, and like Williamson, he almost always went to the basket from ISO. In the pros, Griffin did not show signs of being a viable 3-point shooter until his fifth season with the Clippers, and it was also around that time when his point-forward skills started to come to light. At the college level, the significant differences between he and Williamson are that Griffin had a more diverse post game, which included a sweet fade-away jumper, and his shot mechanics were far more sound. On the other hand, Williamson was far more productive in terms of blocks and steals, and he will likely continue to do so moving forward.
Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements: Stats used in our scouting reports mainly come from Synergy Sports Technology and RealGM.com, and occasionally from Hoop-Math.com and Sports-Reference.com. The photo was courtesy of Duke Athletics. Other outside sources are noted with links to the source.