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Most coverage of Zion Williamson this season will focus on his potential future in the NBA. That’s natural, given that he’ll play (conservatively) 20 times more games in the NBA than he will at Duke, and after a decade in the pros, his time in college will be a relative blip on his total career arc. Scouts and GMs are surely salivating at the prospect of selecting Williamson in the NBA Draft.
Quite simply put, we as a collective basketball viewing public have never seen anything that resembles Zion Williamson. No player has ever possessed the height, weight, foot speed, and vertical leap we’ve seen in Williamson. There have been bigger, stronger, faster, and springier prospects, but never contained within one complete package. Add in an improving jump shot and Williamson looks like a generational talent. He has the versatility of Draymond Green, the scoring ability of Charles Barkley, and the athleticism of a Marvel superhero. Williamson looks like a can’t miss draft pick.
Here at a college basketball blog, we have other questions to ask and answer about Williamson. He will whiz through college basketball in a matter of months, but how profound can his impact be?
Williamson is currently the highlight, yet arguably not the centerpiece, of an undefeated Duke team that has as much raw talent as any college basketball team in a quarter-century. With Williamson alongside fellow top tier recruits Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett, the Blue Devils will have the three best players in every single game they play this season. You may have misread that statement, assuming I meant Duke’s trio is more talented than any player they will face this season. After just four games, it is clear that these three stars will not just be more gifted or have more potential than any opponent they face, but be flat out better college basketball players.
This does not mean Duke will go undefeated (although it might), nor does it mean the Blue Devils will cut down the nets in early April as National Champions (despite being the favorites right now). It simply means Coach K has collected more talent on his current team than any team he has ever coached at the college level. This Duke team is capable of great things this season, with Williamson at the forefront.
Williamson attracts eyeballs with his rim-shattering dunks (we’ll get to those in a minute), but has shown a much more developed game than simply hammering home easy buckets. Through four games, Williamson is shooting 74 percent from the floor, making a third of his attempts from beyond the arc.
His jumper is not perfect, yet it has been effective to date, thanks to his ability to penetrate into the lane and finish in traffic. Williamson has been able to make jump shots because he has had the time and room to shoot open jump shots. Any defender pressing up on Williamson is in grave danger of allowing a runaway bear into the lane, where Williamson has been incredibly effective. He’s making more than three-quarters of his shots at the rim, sinking both thunderous dunks and crafty finishes.
Williamson is a Jeep Grand Cherokee when moving unencumbered, with the ball skills and vision to be a menace as a creator.
With the ball in his hands, Williamson isn’t driving with blinders. He has shown a deft ability to find his teammates for scoring chances. In four games this season, Williamson has posted an assist rate of 19.1. Compare that to Draymond Green who led Michigan State’s offense in his All-American senior season while managing an assist rate of 24.2 in 2012. Williamson maneuvers with his head on a swivel and uses his body mass to get to areas of the court where he can score or pass to open teammates.
Zion’s body, it’s size and girth in particular, has been the sharpest weapon in his arsenal. He’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, but both of those feel somehow simultaneously too high and too low. For reference, JJ Watt is listed at 6-foot-5 and 289 pounds. In case you’ve forgot, JJ Watt plays defensive line in the NFL and cannot fly through the air like a musuclar butterfly. Zion Williamson can!
Before we obsess over his dunks, and I promise we will get there, it’s important to note how well Zion uses the meat of his body to carve out space, especially on the glass. He’s been a terror as an offensive rebounder, hauling in more than four per game and posting the 37th highest offensive rebounding rate in the nation so far. Williamson leads Duke in putback baskets, thanks in part to being un-box-out-able, especially for any player quick enough to guard him.
He also uses his remarkable body to guard multiple positions, whether using his heft to bang in the paint or his light feet to stay in front of perimeter players. Thanks to his world class vertical leap, Williamson protects the rim for Duke when guarding a big man. Despite only standing 6-foot-7, Zion’s leaping ability has lead to 4.3 blocks per 40 minutes of play. Last year, Mo Bamba, of Texas led major conference players in blocks per game and posted 4.9 per 40 minutes. Bamba is a wiry 7-footer with a wingspan nearly reaching 8 feet and is nearly being matched by Williamson, who is built like an overgrown USPS mailbox. His ability to turn his physical gifts into functional assets is remarkable.
And of course, he dunks. Oh, he dunks. There should be legitimate fear that he could break a rim or backboard this season.
If you aren’t making a point to see as many Duke games as possible this season, you’re missing out. Williamson is just one piece of America’s best college basketball team and Duke will play a brutal ACC schedule. If they make it through the regular season unscathed, Duke will charge towards tournament play like a locomotive off the tracks, with Zion Williamson shoveling coal into the engine.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.
Header image via AP Photo/Gerry Broome