It’s difficult to determine what’s more incredible about Duke freshman Zion Williamson: The amount of hype, headlines and hyperbole he’s received since he entered the national spotlight 5 months ago, or the fact that he’s deserving of every single ounce of it.
He’s the best NBA prospect since LeBron James in 2003 and the latest can’t-miss prospect since Anthony Davis. He’d be the first pick in just about any NBA Draft in the history of the league. What he does on a basketball court shouldn’t be possible, let alone for a player of his size. He’s part Russell Westbrook, part Draymond Green and part LeBron. There’s no argument against it, and any one that you do hear is someone simply arguing to argue: Williamson is a generational talent that will change the course of one team’s franchise in June.
He’s Shaquille O’Neal in 1992. He’s Tim Duncan in 1997. He’s LeBron in 2003. He’s Anthony Davis in 2011. He’s as can’t-miss as any of those foundational pieces who were selected first overall without any second guessing. Here’s why:
Let’s begin with his frame. Williamson, who officially declared for the draft on Monday evening, is listed at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds. Both figures seem accurate, and seeing as he’s likely to skip on the Combine in May, we won’t get any official measurements. He’ll turn 19 in July but has the frame on a 27-year-old middle linebacker. He’s chiseled, has tree trunks for legs and the broadest of shoulders. He’ll enter the NBA as the second heaviest player in the league behind Philadelphia’s Boban Marjanovic, who has a listed 290 pounds on a 7-foot-3 body.
And yet, Williamson might be the most athletic player in the league next season. You’ve seen him jump out of the gym on dunks, race down the floor in transition and time up blocks on the defensive end. He moves incredibly well both laterally and straight-lined and a 6-foot-10 wingspan only adds to his unbelievable dimensions.
But can he play? Oh, this is going to be fun. Williamson’s raw numbers were stunning. In 33 games, he averaged 22.6 points on 68 percent shooting, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks in 30.0 minutes. Where to begin? He’s the first player in NCAA history to average 22 points and shoot 68 percent from the field; in fact, his closest competition was Blake Griffin, who as a sophomore averaged 22.7 points on 65.4 percent shooting. The last player to reach his rebound/block/steal combination? Nerlens Noel in 2013.
But let’s dig a little on these scoring numbers. Williamson was an absolute freak of nature inside. While it’s true that some of those possessions came on fast-break dunks, consider that Williamson averaged 1.502 points per possession around the basket, per Synergy Sports. What’s even crazier? Williamson broke the database and did so on 219 possessions. Only nine players in the country even reached 200 possessions. And the only other player in its database to reach 1.45 points per possession was 7-foot-1 Deandre Ayton, who went first overall last year to Phoenix. The combination of efficiency and volume was unprecedented.
Don’t let the 2.1 assists fool you. Williamson has elite court vision, constantly passing out of double teams and drives when entire defenses would come crashing down on him. He’s only going to get better in a more spaced NBA setting while finding more talented shooters at the pro level – Duke was 328th of 351 teams in 3-point field goal percentage last year (30.8%). Take out Williamson’s numbers and he was passing to players averaging a combined 30.1% from deep. He’s an outstanding passer. He’ll have no trouble averaging 4-5 assists out of the gate.
That being said, the outside shot is a concern. Williamson only shot 33.8% from beyond the arc and was just 3 of 8 on midrange attempts. Players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons have shown it’s possible to dominate without a jump shot in today’s 3-point-heavy era but it’s something Williamson will at least need to improve on. We’ll add here that he was pretty left-hand dominant, but that’s typical for an 18-year-old freshman. The good news is a jump shot and off-hand dribble are teachable. Everything that makes Williamson great is not.
If Williamson weren’t an historically good offensive talent, his defense would make him a top-10 pick anyway. Williamson’s instincts and timing, combined with his absurd athleticism, made him one of the best defenders in the country. He’s only 6-foot-7 but will have no trouble playing power forward – or center, for that matter – in the NBA. His 285-pound frame will be able to withstand the banging inside – think Draymond Green – and his footwork and quick side-to-side movement will allow him to switch out onto the perimeter.
The Bulls need a point guard. But don’t overthink it. The Bulls, like 29 other teams, could use a generational talent. While it’s true that drafting Williamson would put one of Wendell Carter Jr. or Otto Porter – with Williamson playing the 3 – on the bench, it’d be a minuscule sacrifice for what Williamson would bring to the Bulls.
They’d be able to run the offense through him and instead of Zach LaVine drawing away attention to free up Lauri Markkanen or vice versa, it’d be Williamson attracting attention to give the Bulls two open lethal scoring options. And that’s before considering Porter as a 3-point threat. He’d inject life into a Bulls defense that has been among the league’s worst over the last two seasons, and a Williamson-Carter combination in the frontcourt has serious potential.
The Bulls, like 29 other teams, would sprint to the podium and draft Williamson. The Bulls would instantly be contenders for a playoff spot and, depending on what happens this offseason, a top-4 spot. Williamson would also make Chicago a more attractive landing spot for free agents, specifically a point guard who would like to be surrounded by Williamson, Markkanen, LaVine and Porter.
He’s a franchise-altering talent. The moment he shakes Adam Silver’s hand on June 20th he’ll be one of the top 25 players in basketball. He’s everything a team is looking for and he’s 18 years old. He’s got a high floor and a higher ceiling. He’s the no-brainer first overall pick for every reason.
The only debate would be whether Williamson would be allowed to wear No. 1 in Chicago.