#1 on the PB Big Board
F – Duke
Freshman, 6’7, 285 pounds
What he does well:
Everything you read or watch about Williamson will lead with his forceful play above the rim, his effectiveness in transition, or his ability to drive the basketball with direct aggressiveness. Each of those elements is part of Williamson’s game, with each of those factors adding to his position as a top tier prospect.
In truth, what really separates Williamson from other high-level athletes is his ability to use his speed, springiness, and quickness on the defensive end of the floor. Despite standing 6-foot-8, Williamson was an effective rim protector patrolling the paint in his year at Duke. His ability to nearly scrape the ceiling, jumping off of one foot or both, makes Zion Williamson a feared shot blocker. He swatted 2.4 shots per 40 minutes, posting a block rate of 5.8 this season.
Although Williamson was among the heaviest players in all of college basketball at 285 pounds, his foot speed allowed him to close out on shooters and into passing lanes. No player taller or heavier than Williamson recorded a higher percentage of steals this season on a per possession basis than the Duke freshman.
His rejection of a De’Andre Hunter 3-pointer at Virginia was the perfect encapsulation of Williamson’s defensive abilities.
Williamson reaches a closing speed that no one his size could even dream about reaching and a peak height that no one, no matter their size, could match.
There are maybe five NBA players who can even fathom trying to guard every single player in the NBA. LeBron James, Giannis Antetekuompo, Ben Simmons, and maybe Kevin Durant make up that entire list. From the second Williamson steps on the court, he joins that group. If he stays properly motivated and healthy, Williamson could be First Team All-Defense many, many times, beginning as a rookie.
Attacking the paint
Zion Williamson’s ability to effectively spark his team offensively stems from his penchant to use his size and speed to slice into the painted area. Defenders are constantly forced out of position as Williamson uses his body to create space.
While he was at Duke, Williamson unleashed a siege on the paint, doing so by building a full head of steam, barreling from the perimeter, or establishing position on the block. Either way, once Williamson had the ball inside his optimal scoring range, he was unstoppable. As just a freshman, Williamson led the ACC in 2-point shooting percentage and field goal shooting. In conference play, he converted just under 77 percent inside the arc.
Williamson showed the ability to score in the paint with floaters, hooks, layups, and dunks. While Zion certainly could overpower college level opponents, and he did, his arsenal of ways to score prove that he’ll continue to be able to convert at the next level.
When Williamson doesn’t get the ball where he wants to, it’s often because he was fouled. In ACC play, Williamson drew 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes, the 2nd highest rate in the conference. With defenders constantly out of place, many are left with no other option than to reach in or overextended their arms, sending Williamson to the free throw line.
This year’s Duke team was one of the worst shooting teams in all of college basketball. The Blue Devils shot in the bottom 8th percentile from outside the arc and the bottom 29th from the free throw stripe. Williamson was certainly part of that problem (more on that in a minute), yet he was surrounded by a crop of poor shooters for nearly all of his minutes on the floor this season. Duke’s offense struggled with spacing, without true shooters to stretch the defense to the 3-point arc.
Coach K also made the strategic choice to play Williamson at power forward this year, rather than center. This left a big man in the paint, even further complicating Duke’s spacing issues.
For Williamson, this left less room to operate when the ball was in his hands. Defenders were ready and able to double-team Williamson at a moment’s notice, or at least pay extra attention as he looked to operate in the paint.
As just a freshman, Williamson showed himself able to respond to those extra eyeballs, creating scoring chances for his teammates all year long. Williamson only averaged 2.1 assists per game, yet saw countless crisp, smart passes ruined by a subpar shooter missing the mark.
At the next level, Zion Williamson may not be able to be a primary offensive creator early in his career, but has the court vision to develop into that kind of weapon with the ball in his hands. This season, playing as a power forward, he ranked in the 99th percentile as a ball-handler in pick-and-roll. For his size, that level of playmaking is mind-blowing.
Where he struggles:
Though he doesn’t lack shooting in the same way a player like Ben Simmons does, Zion Williamson’s jump shot leaves a lot to be desired. In Simmons’ case, he has chosen to exist completely without a 3-point shot. Heaven only knows if he could manage to even shoot 25 percent from beyond the arc or if that would be enough to at least make defenders stay within a car-length of the Sixers’ point guard. Instead, Simmons focuses his energy on attacking downhill and scoring on the interior.
Williamson looks to use his clunky jump shot to open up driving lanes to the basket. This season, he made 33.8 percent of his 71 collegiate long-range attempts, below the national average. He showed more issues in his shooting stroke at the free throw line, where he sank just 64 percent of his tries.
At the end of the day, Williamson can probably be a good enough shooter to open up the rest of his offensive game at the next level. Giannis Antetokounmpo attracted at least some perimeter attention, despite shooting just 26 percent from outside the arc. Draymond Green has been an effective playmaker when he was at least a threat to make shots, at 32 percent for his career. Joel Embiid suckers big men into his pump fake time-after-time, though he barely cracks 30 percent shooting as a pro.
If Williamson’s shot can at least make defenders commit to a cautious close-out on the perimeter, he’ll have no trouble blowing by them to the rim.
How his game translates to the NBA:
Williamson will be able to compete in today’s NBA from day one, due to his athleticism and high motor. He will be able to defend at an elite level right away, even when his offense is a work in progress. It may take Williamson time to adjust offensively, facing stronger defenders and more complete defensive schemes. He should find opportunities to score in transition or as a roll-man before finding and developing a smart, nuanced offensive identity.
His career will have extra life in the modern game, with positions becoming less and less important. Whereas a player the size of Zion Williamson used to be thought of as a “tweener” with no true position, we now know the value of a player able to switch defensively and exploit mismatches offensively. Williamson’s likely most valuable role will be as a small-ball center, protecting the rim with his verticality and spreading the floor offensively with his foot speed.
- Springier Larry Johnson
- Explosive Draymond Green
- More Skilled Kenneth Farried
Next up: #2 Ja Morant
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.