Zion is finishing the best season of all-time
Duke’s one-and-done college wunderkind will be a transformational pro. And Blazers, post-Nurkic.
This post was originally published on March 29, 2019, and until now was only available to TrueHoop subscribers. Subscribe today to get content like this straight to your inbox!
By DAVID THORPE
Duke’s Zion Williamson is a “highlight-reel player.” Sometimes that’s an insult, because on highlight reels, the misses are edited out. In Zion’s case, they just do less editing. He’s made nearly 7 of every 10 shots he’s taken, and that’s including 3-pointers. Incredibly, he’s made 74.8 percent of his 2-point shots, and if that number sounds impossible, it is. Or was anyway, because no NCAA (or NBA, for that matter) player had ever accomplished that.
Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem-Abdul Jabbar) never topped 66.7 percent from the field in any of his three varsity seasons at UCLA. Fellow Bruin Bill Walton’s best was 66.5 percent in his senior year. Bill Russell never got close to 60 percent in his two years at San Francisco. Anthony Davis hit 65 percent for Kentucky. All those young men lived strictly near the basket.
Duke has work to do to win the title this year (starting tonight in the Sweet 16 against Virginia Tech, CBS, 9:39 ET). But win or lose, Williamson’s season has already been legendary. He set that field-goal percentage record as a freshman despite his team’s playing the second toughest schedule. He almost never loses. Not counting the knee injury that took him out of the showdown with North Carolina just one minute into the game, Zion has been in the lineup just twice when Duke lost—once in regulation (22 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks against Gonzaga) and once in overtime (35 points on 22 shots against Syracuse).
He didn’t just make 75 percent of his 2-point field goals, he put up probably the best men’s college basketball season in history. Until this season, no player since college PER stats were tracked in 2009 ever recorded a rating above High Point’s John Brown at 36.93 in 2016. This year Zion’s PER is 41.6.
What does that mean for his NBA prospects?
He’s going to be better than Carmelo Anthony, who won a championship in his only college season, and not quite as good as LeBron James, one of the two best players ever.
He’ll end up being closer to LeBron than to Carmelo.
When evaluating and projecting players, I like to break down parts of a player’s game and compare those parts to former and current NBA players. Scouts and executives do this too. The highlight packages show you the player’s best asset: not just jumping, but finishing. That field-goal percentage is incredibly important. Finishing takes talent, skill, basketball IQ, and focus. Zion’s massive build certainly helps him score through contact, and the college game is much rougher than the NBA version (no, the players aren’t stronger or taller, they’re just allowed to push and hit people more). Zion was largely unaffected by this. The same can’t be said of those 7-foot legends I mentioned earlier, who missed more often than Zion has. At the NBA level, his power advantage will be somewhat mitigated because his opponents will be stronger and taller. A tighter whistle, though, will send him to the line far more frequently.
Zion has Blake Griffin’s power and agility
Zion is not just huge, he’s also quick and agile. His power and width allow him sharper angles that are far more difficult for a defender to contain—off cuts, in transition and with his dribble. That combination of power and agility reminds people of Blake Griffin. It’s an excellent comparison. Griffin is an elite NBA offensive player. He currently ranks 31st all-time in career PER and is a likely Hall of Famer (Basketball-reference.com has that probability at just over 50 percent today).
Griffin is one of the most gifted players at his size in league history. He’s a dominating attack man off the dribble, capable of beating much smaller players with his slick handle and quick feet. In four of his first six seasons, Griffin finished in the top 10 percent for power forwards at finishing shots at the rim. That’s hard to accomplish for star scorers who often have to beat their own defender plus helpers lurking inside. And he’s been in the top 6 percent for power forwards at drawing non-shooting fouls every season he’s been in the NBA. That’s from having floor skills on the perimeter and the strength to seal men inside and have them grab him before he can even catch the ball. Now consider that he’s been among the elite power forwards at creating buckets for teammates, averaging 4.9 assists or better in each of his last six seasons. That lofty PER is well-earned. Everything Blake does is a skillset Zion projects to have, and Zion’s ability and awareness to block shots as a helper inside or behind the 3-point line is a clear step ahead of what Blake has ever shown.
Zion is strong enough to play power forward and quicker than many of them, more comfortable playing and defending out on the court. Zion (6-foot-7) might not be as tall as Griffin (6-foot-10), but Zion is said to have a 6-foot-10 wingspan that makes up for those lost inches in height. So when talking about whom Zion will most play like on the floor, it’s Griffin.
The hands, fire, and bulk of Charles Barkley
Once upon a time they said Charles Barkley was the wrong shape and size for the NBA. He was maybe 6-foot-5. Too small, they said, for a power forward, and bulky against many of the NBA bigs. Many said he would struggle in the NBA!
He didn’t. At all. His hands, skill, and feel for the game, his extreme competitiveness and aggression, and his overall talent made him an 11-time All-NBA choice. Barkley is my favorite comparison for Zion because of his fire. Zion competes, every game, like he’s hoping to make the team. That motor more than makes up for height issues, as Barkley’s opponents, and Zion’s, can attest. Williamson barely ever takes even a possession off. Barkley attacked the game similarly. When he played, he was never the funny, smiling guy he is now on TNT. He was destructive on both ends of the court. Thanks to that motor and those elite-level hands, he out-rebounded taller players like he had vacuums for hands.
Hands are a rebounder’s best friend. Zion’s are every bit as magical as Barkley’s. He grabs balls out of the air without even trying. Might he end up with a career like Barkley’s? Yes. Barkley won one MVP trophy, probably deserved two, and was the best player on the 1992 Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics. Zion can have that kind of impact. Barkley’s weight issue disappeared, literally, as he developed in the NBA. Zion is built very differently than Barkley was. Zion is far more muscle than not. But I still expect some of his frame to melt away. Where Barkley lost fat, I see Zion losing muscle mass. It is possible to be leaner without losing strength, and that will be any smart team’s goal for Zion. There was a time when LeBron was dominating the league, and insiders felt he weighed more than 275 pounds yet he was not close to being “fat.” He was just muscle-bound, similar to Zion. LeBron looks far leaner and lighter now, a fair expectation for Zion going forward when he will have ‘round the clock help on his body and in the kitchen. Most teams employ chefs, and he’ll likely get his own personal one. It is said LeBron spends $1 million annually on his body. Zion would be wise to invest similarly.
Russell Westbrook’s killer instincts
Westbrook floats effortlessly in the air and fights, with an edge, every moment he is on the court. When I see Zion try to dominate and embarrass his opponents, like this, I think of Russell Westbrook. Maybe it’s an unconventional comparison, until you watch a Westbrook lob and a Zion lob.
Both guys just have better physical tools than almost anyone they’ll face. And they use their gifts relentlessly. The saying “to a hammer everything looks like a nail” is appropriate to Zion and Russ. They’re hammers, and dunks aren’t the only nails.
Having elite gifts and using them are two different things. The NBA is full of players who don’t fully utilize their talent. Some never figure that out. (There are dozens of examples. Gerald Green was a slam dunk champion, but rarely found ways to dunk through traffic, or in games at all.) Zion needs to get a lot better in many areas, but he already plays as if the court is actually a performance trampoline. No fan or opponent will wonder if he’s as athletic as his reputation suggests.
Larry Bird’s grit and abandon
Zion doesn’t just fly through the air, he crashes to the ground with zero regard for his body or anyone else’s. That recklessness intrigues and excites me. For Zion, the will to win far exceeds his interest in self-preservation. Of course, that also comes at a price. Which is where Zion reminds me of one final NBA legend. Anyone who watched basketball in the ‘80s will remember one current Hall of Famer who dove for loose balls as if his life depended on it. As much as it excited Celtics fans to see Larry Bird “go parallel” for a ball, it had to unnerve his coaches and executives at least a little bit. Zion, Bird, and Westbrook all have that quality of willingness to put their bodies in harm’s way, to take one for the team. It fires up teammates.
Bird turned his Indiana State team, full of very average players, into a 33-0 squad that only lost an epic 1979 NCAA championship game against Magic Johnson’s 25-6 Michigan State team. Those average Indiana State players had a swagger that came from knowing they had college basketball’s version of Superman with them. When Bird got to Boston, the Celtics won three titles.
Duke is loaded with elite talent, but watch Zion’s teammates’ eyes. As special as those other Duke players are, they seem more capable and confident because they are with Zion. The effect won’t be the same in the NBA, but it won’t evaporate. Bird. Magic. Duncan. Kobe. Shaq. LeBron. Curry. All of them helped teammates achieve more than most thought possible. Zion can have that kind of effect.
And he can be a better defender than all of them
Zion has shown flashes of elite defensive potential throughout the season. His highlight blocks and his ability to stay in front of small guards trying to maneuver around him are obvious from social media alone. Those talents translate very well to the NBA, where his agility, length, height, and power will enable him to change directions quickly, and with balance, on defense. He’s going to be able to handle switches onto lots of guards and post players even early in his career. Most importantly, he has a disposition to defend, a desire to take the challenge personally, while also staying true to the main idea on defense. It’s not “I can’t let them score on me,” but rather “I can’t let them score on us.” His Hall of Fame coach, Mike Krzyzewski, has seen his share of incredible athletes as the Duke and Team USA coach. So when Coach K raves about Zion’s lateral quickness and second-bounce talent, attributes that are as much about defense as anything, understand that the coach has ridiculously high standards when it comes to praise.
The pluses add up like this: Whoever’s choosing No. 1 in the draft this June will be getting a world-class athlete who, unlike most young forwards (think Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Paul George), is ready to play either small forward or power forward now because he’s strong and skilled enough to do so. That team will be inheriting a celebrity the moment Zion takes the floor for his first game, the favorite to win the dunk contest on All-Star weekend, an infectious personality that everyone on the team will enjoy playing alongside, and someone the fans will buy tickets to see. He will be all that as a rookie and will only get much, much better from there.
He’s far from a finished product
Zion has a passable right (weaker) hand as a finisher. That right hand is better when he dunks, but it needs lots of work. In the NBA, LeBron eventually became an ambidextrous scorer and it helped his post game and his overall finishing ability enormously. Zion would be wise to follow suit after the NCAAs and some needed rest. He’s a fine ball handler overall, especially for his size, yet it will be years before he’s at his peak there. Guys like Durant and James Harden exploded as players once their handle progressed from solid to elite.
His 3-point shooting is decent, at 33 percent. He isn’t afraid to shoot it, but the trajectory is very flat. I’m not worried about it. Most great rim attackers don’t spend enough time working on their outside shot until they hit the pros. Why would they? As a pro, it’ll be part of Zion’s daily routine. I’d expect him to cross the 35 percent threshold by his second year, more than good enough that his team would want him to let it fly. His mechanics are sound, if a little stiff. Repetition should help them become more fluid and natural. Though he’s only a 65 percent free throw shooter (which studies show is a better predictor of NBA 3-point shooting than NCAA 3-point shooting) I don’t have any worries about that part of his game. He will become an average 3-point shooter, at minimum, relatively early in his career.
There are people who worry about his NBA position. I’m not one of them. His position will be on the court, a lot. We hear commentators discuss positionless basketball, and that’s because of the size and skills of players today. They’re simply more versatile than ever. Zion can post up guys; he can get buckets over, around and through defenders; he’s quick and coordinated enough to stay connected to smaller/quicker ball handlers on defense, and he’s long/tall/strong enough to defend bigger inside players. I can easily see him playing alongside three taller players as a guard, or as the second tallest player on the court for his team when the coach wants to go small. He will not have fun guarding shooters like Klay Thompson and J.J. Redick, but they’ll be challenged guarding him, too. And while power players like Davis and Griffin will be able to overwhelm him inside, he’s adept enough on the perimeter to create scoring angles as a cutter or driver against them.
Does it matter who drafts him?
There are two types of NBA stars. Some players need the right system, accomplished teammates, or just a long rope to work with before their game makes that big leap to stardom. In the Western Conference, players like Paul George, Kawhi Leonard (when he was with San Antonio), Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson fit that bill. In the East, think J.J. Redick, or Nikola Vucevic, or D'Angelo Russell.
But Zion is more like Westbrook, Durant, Giannis, and Kobe. Even Joel Embiid. These are guys who will be All-Stars no matter what. These superstars might've needed time to develop, but their futures were never in doubt. That's Zion.
In November I told Mr. TrueHoop himself, Henry Abbott, that Zion can average 20 points a game as a rookie. On any lottery team, I stand by that prediction. He’ll only grow from there. That’s not to say his future franchise doesn’t matter. Harden, Giannis, and Curry all got significantly better when their cultures changed—or their team in Harden’s case—with new coaching and a better system for their talents. Zion on a bad franchise is an All-Star, like Griffin was early on. Give him great coaching on a strong team, and he can be a Barkley type player, with MVPs and Olympic rings.
A Zion Williamson that can make 38 percent of his 3s and finish with his right hand almost as well as his left can win scoring titles, too, with the chance to be the best player on a championship team. That’s how bright his future is.
The Blazers’ best option: underdog mode
Emerging star center Jusuf Nurkic’s season ended with a gruesome broken leg Monday night. Amid the horror, the League shared one common thought. Across every kind of line—race, team, nationality—players everywhere reacted immediately and emotionally on social media.
What that tells us: players love this game. When so many reacted so swiftly, it was obvious they were watching the game live. An 82-game season doesn’t stop guys who’ve watched hoops their whole lives. On a Monday night, they were tuned in.
The fact that they took to Twitter to support another player, someone who is very important to his team—which means he’s bad news for those who play against him—shows some depth of character that thrilled me.
Now many wonder what Portland can do, while feeling almost as bad for Damian Lillard as they do for Nurkic. Lillard has been spectacular this year, again. His team, and it is HIS, was in prime position to finish as the third seed in the West, which meant the Blazers would likely avoid playing the Warriors until the conference finals. Accomplishing that alone would have made this season terrific.
Then the Nurkic nightmare. Although they just rolled the Bulls without Nurkic or C.J. McCollum, it’s conceivable the Blazers, with just eight games left until the postseason, could drop from third to eighth. The data shows their defense is essentially terrible without Nurkic. I have four ideas for the Blazers:
Kanter from deep Enes Kanter, the logical replacement for Nurkic, has made two 3-pointers this season. But he needs to shoot a lot of them, starting now. Every practice and every game. Opposing defenders don’t guard him out there, at all, because he’s taken so few deep shots in his career. The Blazers have better shooting big men than Kanter in Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins. But they need to play Kanter, because Leonard and Collins would get killed on the glass by the West’s playoff bigs. Kanter is the far better rebounder and thus the answer. He doesn’t look to shoot, but his form looks fine. With Kanter making 3s, it would allow more playing time for Maurice Harkless, another non-shooter. They need that extra shooter to create driving lanes for Lillard and McCollum, who can then score or kick out to those shooters, with Harkless lurking in the “dunk spot” just behind the rim to punish his man helping on those drivers.
More Moe!! Without Nurkic, Harkless needs to be on the court a lot. The Blazers’ defense had relied on Nurkic hanging back to protect the paint. The Blazers have no one to do that now. With Nurkic they played conservatively on defense, not gambling (they’re a bottom-five team in steals per game) so they could play 5-on-5 and feature Nurkic inside. It’s time to start trying to force turnovers. They’re not going to be able to shut teams down, so creating more steals and thus more points off turnovers is one way to generate better offensive numbers to make up for their upcoming defensive struggles. Harkless can create chaos on defense better than anyone on the roster.
Zone up Kanter is not a great man-to-man defender. Trapping in the zone or just trying to shade shooters and hoping Kanter can clean the defensive glass (often a bugaboo in zone defenses) would help. Zone also allows the star guards to rest a little. More teams have been trying zones on defense recently. Portland can study what’s been working for them. In an effective zone, defenders loiter in the paint longer than they’re supposed to in the hope officials don’t call defensive three seconds. Mixing in zone with bouts of aggressive man-to-man can keep offenses off balance just enough to allow Portland to steal games with its offensive firepower. If opponents are making 3s, the Blazers are toast. If not ...
Thunder and lightning, C.J. and Dame These scoring studs take a combined 14 3s per game. Harden shoots that many by himself, and he makes less by percentage. Let those little guards loose. Without Nurkic, each should be averaging a dozen or more 3s a game, starting now. Let them shoot early in the clock. Or late. Anytime they can see the rim. Kanter is an elite offensive rebounder, so Portland can hope Kanter can clean up some close misses. When DeMarcus Cousins went down last season with a torn Achilles, we saw Anthony Davis go full “Russell Westbrook mode” (his words), and it propelled the Pelicans to the second round. Portland’s star guards need the same kind of mentality.
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Part 1 has a dude throwing a football 80 yards in his socks (and is public).
Part 4 is about chewing your fingernails, partying and hitting game-winners.
And here is a public post about the inner workings of the Lakers.