Zion Williamson has been given a lot of titles throughout his basketball career. “Internet Sensation” may have been the first one. His AAU and high school highlights have been popular for years. Clips and compilations like this one are really where the mythical side of Zion’s reputation began.
The legend of Zion continued to grow, he committed to Duke, and before he ever played a game, we saw this video… which only further inflated his reputation and fame. Before he knew it, Zion was handed the title of “The Next LeBron”. Both are thickly-built forwards known for throwing down dunks, but there are lots of issues with a Zion/LeBron comparison. NBA comps can be useful and reasonable, but calling an 18-year old “The Next [insert former MVP here]” is often a lazy move. Brandon Ingram as the next KD, Trae Young as the next Steph, now Zion Williamson as the next LeBron. Really, Zion’s play style isn’t necessarily similar to LeBron’s, at least not yet. Williamson’s game is honestly so unique that comparing him to any one individual player is impossible.
So what if we erase the labels? Let’s forget the comparisons, forget the myth of Zion Williamson, and take a look at the player. As I mentioned, there’s really no one NBA player that Zion can be compared to. He’s got such a unique and versatile game, I could see his NBA career going in one of many directions. Here are five different player prototypes that Zion could fill into based on five skills that we’ve seen in his game.
Defining Skill: Pick and rolling, catching lobs, finishing
Shades of: DeAndre Jordan, Rookie Blake Griffin
Lots of centers in today’s NBA can be classified as “rim runners”. They may not have a wide variety of offensive skills, but they’re athletic and can catch and finish lobs on rolls to the rim. In the modern spread pick & roll offense, any team could use a screener who can roll to the rim and finish. Of course, Zion is only 6’7″ and he’s far more skilled than a DeAndre Jordan type, but this one thing we know Williamson can do. Duke measured his vertical at 45 inches, which would be the 8th highest in NBA history according to this Fadeaway World article (Wilt Chamberlain, Darrell Griffith, Michael Jordan, Zach LaVine, Josh Richardson, James White, Spud Webb). Pretty incredible for a 270-lb freight train.
Let’s take a look at some clips of Zion as the roll man. First, let’s look at this clip from the ACC Tournament semifinal between Duke and North Carolina. You’ll see Zion set a pick for R.J. Barrett. Zion’s guy steps up to help on Barrett, and Zion rolls to the rim, wide open. Barrett passes to Marques Bolden at the top of the key who instantly throws the lob to Zion. This one was nice and easy, but it shows Zion’s ability to catch and finish while rolling to the rim.
Similarly, take a look at a couple clips from Duke’s B1G/ACC challenge game vs. IU. On these plays, Zion slips the screen. A slip screen is basically pick-and-roll where the screener rolls before he even initiates the screen. Look at #55 on IU, anticipating the screen and stepping a little too high, leaving Zion wide open to roll to the rim. In the next video, Zion slips the screen again, but #10, freshman Rob Phinisee, is there playing help defense and fouling Zion.
One of the most entertaining parts of Zion’s game is in transition. I think it’s fair to say that his combination of speed, strength, and vertical is pretty unprecedented. Only guys that I can think of are LeBron and Shawn Kemp, but that’s not the point. Here’s a great example of Zion running the floor off-ball, and R.J. finds him for the alley-oop.
At the very least, we know Zion can catch and finish lobs as the roll man. But there are other skills that we know Zion has coming into the draft.
Defining Skill: Defense (perimeter and interior)
Shades of: Draymond Green, Serge Ibaka
We’ve all seen the incredible clips of Zion’s blocks. This swat against Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter went viral, and understandably so, it’s an unbelievable athletic feat. And with Zion’s athletic tools, he is already a great defender. On the defensive end, the plays that make the best highlights are huge blocks. Zion is an explosive help defender, anticipating opponent’s drives or shots and coming over to block them. In these three clips, you see him doing just that. It’s not his man shooting, but he’s coming over to help.
In only 29.1 minutes per game, Williamson averaged 2.2 steals and 1.8 blocks over the regular season. He’s great at anticipating opponent’s shots and passes. Watch Zion jump passing lanes, which can lead to his thunderous fastbreak dunks.
And yes, help-side rim protecting is a huge part of NBA defense, especially with the increased spacing. But Zion can also be known to over-help, jump on pump fakes, and gamble for steals or blocks. It’s one of the few concerns with his game, and I’d bet it’s easily corrected with a little instruction from NBA coaches. Here’s an example vs. Syracuse, as Zion comes up to help and bites on a pump fake. In college, he’s been able to afford these types of errors by recovering, as you see in the clip. But against NBA players he’ll have to stay down and stop jumping so much.
And in another clip from the ACC semifinal, Zion comes over to help, jumps towards a shot he can’t reach, and the Tar Heels get a tip-in from the exact spot he just left. Of course, we’ve seen Williamson cover incredible ground and get some emphatic blocks, but he’ll have to cut down on his block attempts. They can take him out of rebounding position, like this clip, and result in fouls.
Still, I would argue that the most important aspect of Zion’s defense will be his switchability. Zion will probably play the ‘4’ in the NBA, maybe some stretch-5, and in today’s game, most teams switch pick and rolls, so big men have to be able to hold their own against guards on the perimeter. Well, Zion can potentially defend all five positions. Look at this clip of Williamson shutting down Notre Dame guard Prentiss Hubb. He’s got the quickness and agility to defend anyone in the NBA, an underrated strength to his game.
Bully Ball Scorer
Defining Skill: Scoring with power
Shades of: Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp, DeMarcus Cousins, Julius Randle
This is really Zion’s current role at Duke. At 6’7″ and 285 lbs, he’d be the 2nd heaviest-player in the NBA, behind Boban, who’s 7’3″, 290. But Zion sure doesn’t look overweight. Seems like it’s all muscle, and he sure plays like it is. Adjusted per 36 minutes, Williamson’s averaging 27.3 points and 11.0 rebounds. He shoots 76% from two-point range, and he’s one of the most powerful scorers college basketball has ever seen. Zion has shown the ability to score from the interior and the perimeter. Let’s first look at some post-ups.
Indiana’s #13 is Juwan Morgan. He’s no scrub, a senior big man who made All-Big Ten Third Team. Zion posts him up like he’s playing his little brother on a nerf hoop. One dribble, spin to the middle, and he’s right at the rim. In the next clip, he does the same thing against Zach Norvell, a Gonzaga sophomore who ranks 37th in Tankathon.com’s Big Board. In the third clip, he finishes through projected lottery pick Keldon Johnson and 5-star freshman E.J. Montgomery. The point is, Zion’s post-ups aren’t just when he gets a mismatch on switches. He seems to have a mismatch all the time, and his post-ups are a central part of Duke’s offense.
Now, how reliable he’ll be against NBA players is no guarantee, but Zion will probably be a “4” in the NBA. In other words, he’ll usually be playing with a traditional center, and he’ll be guarded by the other team’s 2nd-biggest player, not their center. Guarded by the Marcus Morrises, Jerami Grants, and Tobias Harrises of the world, I would argue that post isolations will certainly be a useful part of Williamson’s arsenal.
The other type of bully ball scoring is from the perimeter. Zion’s agile enough to drive from the outside and finish strong or draw fouls. Against NBA defense, it’ll be interesting to see if Zion is still able to drive and overpower opponents, it definitely won’t be as easy as it looks in these clips. Still, Williamson can handle the ball, and moves well, with a quick first step.
Defining Skill: Playmaking and passing
Shades of: Draymond Green, Detroit Blake Griffin, Nikola Jokic
I would argue that the most underrated aspect of Zion’s game is his playmaking. Without lots of opportunity at Duke, it’s hard to say exactly how far he can take this skill, but it will be interesting to see if it can be unleashed in the NBA. One of the reasons is Duke’s poor three-point shooting. The Blue Devils shoot 30.5% from beyond the arc. That ranks 337th out of 353 Division I schools. With such awful shooters around him, the drive and kick game isn’t really there for Zion. We’ve mostly seen his playmaking in transition. Look at these two clips from the Champions Classic.
Zion’s also shown the ability to make little passes in the half-court that can create offense, like this dribble hand-off that gives R.J. Barrett an open three. At the very least, he’ll be able to make smart passes in a secondary role, like Al Horford and Blake Griffin, but there’s potential to see him become a primary playmaker, too, which leads us into our last section.
Superstar Point Forward
Defining Skill: Scoring off the dribble
Shades of: Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James
The last frontier of Zion’s game is being a “point forward”. As we’ve established, we know he can catch lobs, we know he can defend, and we know he can score with power. If he can score from the perimeter, hit jumpers, and develop into a primary playmaker, Williamson can become the type of superstar that dominates the ball, runs an offense, and contends for MVP awards.
Let’s start with this clip. Here we see Zion’s explosive first step. When a defender steps up too high, Williamson has the burst to blow by him and get to the rim in a split second. Problem is, without a reliable three-point shot, opponents typically give Zion a little space on the perimeter.
However, Williamson’s jumper has been improving. In non-conference play (before New Year’s) he shot 16.7% from three on 1.5 attempts per game. But since ACC play began, he’s up to 39.5% from downtown, on 2.1 attempts per game. That’s 18 games, a significant sample size. 39.5% is no joke. If he can keep that up in the NBA… watch out.
In these three clips, Zion makes some incredible moves to the basket. As I mentioned, we know he’s got an explosive first step, but he’ll need to couple that, either with a jumpshot or ball handling moves like this. Of course, these type of moves will be more difficult against NBA defenses, but it’ll be very intriguing to watch Zion in his rookie year to see if he can replicate it. f Zion can become a primary playmaker and pair his explosiveness with a jumper or handle, he can really develop into a LeBron or Giannis type of superstar point forward.
A lot of this will be dependent on Zion’s role, and who drafts him. Will his team simply make him a glorified rim runner? Will they put him in a post up situations? Or will they let him dominate the ball, play make, and create off the dribble?
There are many possible paths for Zion Williamson’s career, but no matter which direction he goes, he’s got one of the highest floors and most unique skillsets that we’ve seen in some time. Instead of calling him “The next _____”, let’s just call him “The first Zion”.