This is a scouting report of Zion Williamson of Duke University by a former NBA Scout.
The Chosen One?
“Outstanding athlete in terms of fluidity, agility, and explosiveness. Great first step. Tremendous ball-handler for size. Rare combination of finesse and power. Absolutely lethal in transition. ”
Did you think that was about Zion Williamson? This an old Draft Express Julius Randle scouting report.
“‘I think he is the most unique player that I’ve ever scouted’, 247Sports director of basketball recruiting Evan Daniels told Sporting News. ‘And I don’t think there is a comparison. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a player quite like him. If you just looked at him, you wouldn’t think the sport he plays is basketball.‘”
Now that one is about Zion. But is it true? Have we really never seen a player like him?
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) February 18, 2019
Now now…before everyone gets up in arms at a Julius Randle comparison, let me clarify something: I hate player comparisons. The title of that SN piece Daniels is quoted in? “Quit the comparisons.” Couldn’t agree more. You look at all 450 or so players in the NBA, how many are really like each other? The fact is that the game is so nuanced, so detailed, that it’s incredibly difficult to find accurate comparisons to guys coming out of college.
That said, I think it’s perfectly fair to take bits and pieces across a landscape of guys and paint a potential picture of the kind of player he can be.
So what do I see in Zion?
To be honest, I do see some similarities to Randle. Extremely left-hand dominant. Uses his overbearing physical presence to overpower guys at the college level. Undersized vertically, oversized horizontally. Capable ‘set-shot’ type shooter at the 4 spot. Not as good of a ball-handler/ lesser b-ball IQ. Far superior explosiveness.
Is he a super-charged version of Julius Randle?
Before you come at me with the pitchforks, remember that Randle was the 7th pick in the draft. It took Randle a while to figure it out, but now in Year 5 he’s averaging nearly 20/10. He averaged a double double his 2nd year in the league.
You may catch my drift by now, but in case you don’t: I see really darn good. I see great potential. But I’m not sure I see transcendent.
Remember. We’ve had undersized 4’s go #1 before. The results haven’t been unanimous.
“The first thing that jumps off the page about Bennett is his tenacious finishing ability. His superb combination of length, explosiveness and aggressiveness makes him a threat to tear down the basket at any given moment and allows him to finish plays from impressive distances, sometimes even when elevating from outside the paint.” Source Draft Express
“Bennett is somewhat undersized for a power forward, but makes up for that with his 7-1 wingspan, strong 239 pound frame, and excellent athleticism. He’s a powerful and explosive leaper with very good quickness and body control” Source Draft Express
We’ve fallen for overweight bigs such as Jahlil Okafor & Jared Sullinger whose motor/eating issues reared their head in the NBA. We’ve fallen for tweener-types like Derrick Williams who didn’t have a true position.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying: are we sure?
What Separates Zion?
I see tremendous heart and passion for the game. I see a fiery competitor. I see a 6’8ish guy who – like Draymond Green, a NBA Champion – has the ability to guard 1-5 at the next level, being able to switch PNR’s. I see a motor capable of being one of the best in the NBA – “Hustle is a skill,” an NBA scout once told me. I see defensive instincts that allow him to use his size, length, and quickness to anticipate and get steals and blocks and things that will make him an elite NBA defender. I see the ability to use defense to fuel his offense, to overplay passing lanes and intercept passes and go coast-to-coast – like LeBron.
Offensively, I’m not as sold.
I see a player who wants to get to his left hand in the post basically every single time. Post-ups are being phased out of the NBA game more and more each year. Mike D’Antoni famously won’t run them, believing them to be one of the most inefficient shots an offense can take. Zion will have 4’s guarding him at the NBA level – guys like Giannis, Aaron Gordon, KD, Siakam. That’s a lot of length. In the NBA, you can’t go “thru” nearly as much as in college. You have to be able to go around. You have to be able to use both hands back to the basket and keep the D honest. You have to be able to face up and use your quickness at times.
NBA teams will sniff out any weakness and take away your go-to move in a second. They will pick up on Zion needing to go over his right shoulder immediately. If he can’t counter that by adding moves over his left/ with his right hand, playing out of the face-up, etc. – I can’t see him getting more than a post up or two each game.
So where does he find his points? As a driver from the perimeter, I see similar: a guy who can pretty much only go left and mostly in a straight line. Forced right, he struggles mightily – and almost always tries to spin back to his left.
In transition, he’ll undoubtedly be a guy able to get you a few easy baskets a game going coast to coast. But NBA teams do a much better job “walling up” and making you see bodies in transition. By far the most important game-planning key against Giannis is to do just that. Obviously, he still is able to be pretty darn successful. But he can struggle against elite defensive teams that get back great in transition. When he’s able to get to the rim anyway, it’s often due to his phenomenal handle and ability to change direction multiple times, use his long-strides to Euro or otherwise get past even good defense. I don’t see the same footwork in Zion, and I definitely don’t see the same handle. The NBA, despite all its pace and space, does require still a very tight and precise handle to get thru tiny gaps of where help defenders are. Luckily for Zion, ball handling is something mostly within his control that he can work relentlessly on and improve enough to become much better there.
I don’t see a shot that’s going to translate tremendously well to the NBA 3. Zion is a very flat-footed shooter, and his footwork from out there is very bare-bones. He’s not a guy who will run off screens and step into his shot off different actions. He’s just a spot-up shooter, which coupled with his handle among other things is why I think he can’t play the 3. I see a spacing 4, a guy with a slow-loading shot almost always anchored with his right foot down and left foot jabbing slightly ahead. Yes, these guys I’m about to compare his shot to are all lefties. Maybe we’re wired to make those kind of comparisons because of how it looks. But I see a form similar to a Zach Randolph – a guy who was an ELITE mid-range shooter in the NBA but who never translated it tremendously behind the 3 beyond the corners. I see a slow-release like Randle, or even a guy like Terrence Jones. Those guys all had varying degrees of success from the NBA 3 – but mostly were just occasional floor spacers who teams lived with shooting. Zion’s best bet will be to really focus on mastering at least the corner 3 so he can space there, but I don’t see a big-time NBA shooter.
Zion in a NBA Lineup
So what’s his role on a NBA team? I see a big-time offensive rebounder, an elite 2nd jumper. I see a guy who can certainly be used some as a roll-man–but how many elite rollers are there at the 4 spot and under 6’9? I see a guy who doesn’t really have an offensive position. I see a guy who, like Randle, can occasionally play out of the ‘trail’ spot offensively and try to get to the rim from the top.
Some Rodney Rogers, Larry Johnson, Charles Barkley? Maybe.
“Nothing is given. Everything is earned.” Zion’s twitter bio has the right idea. Luckily for him, motor and hustle rise to the top in the NBA. If he gets himself in tip-top shape and plays with Draymond’s maniacal competitiveness every night, he’ll be just fine.
Unluckily for Zion, his game is still incredibly raw and lacking a lot of the fundamental skill to truly be elite at the next level. Verdict?
Great prospect. Great athlete. Great potential.
Transcendent? The next Bron? One in a million? Maybe not.