NBA Draft Prospects: Zion Williamson

Zion Williamson has captured the nation's attention this season with his highlight plays and overall dominance. He is making it clear that he needs to be the #1 pick in the draft.

The name Zion has always carried a level of reverence and mystique to it. It is rarely associated with people or places that lack grandeur. Millions of people make the trek to Zion National Park every year because of its serene rivers, towering peaks, and blend of colors. The earliest finding of the name is Mount Zion in the bible which held a fortress that was conquered by King David, slayer of Goliath. The name Zion is even connected with the religion of Mount Zion and the political movement of Zionism which helped declare the re-establishment of the State of Israel.

Today, the term Zionism can - and maybe should - refer to the worship of the man who will almost certainly be the first pick in June's NBA Draft: Zion Williamson.

There is a myriad of names that Zion Williamson could have been given on the day he was born but few would have fit him as aptly as Zion. Williamson is built like a Minotaur and moves like a jaguar. Zion is the perfect blend of strength with speed, of power with finesse, of grace with ferocity. As a high schooler, Williamson was already world famous because of his high-flying dunks and ability to create snapshot moments perfect for social media consumption. Coming into this season I believed Williamson would be a high pick in a relatively weak draft, but I had plenty of concerns. I worried his weight (he would already be the second heaviest player in the NBA) was a sign of laziness and would be a serious concern. I worried that he was just a freak athlete who could jump out of the gym and not do much else. I worried that all he wanted was social media fame and not to win games and be a great player. These concerns were doused almost immediately as Zion proved he is so much more than just an athlete and that he should easily be the first pick in this year’s draft.

Scoring

At the start of this season, I had the foolish notion that Zion Williamson was just an athlete. I was wrong. Horribly wrong. He has proven to be one of the best scorers in the country. According to Synergy, Williamson scores 1.241 points per possession (99th percentile). His dominance and athleticism have permeated every offensive situation, besides spot up shooting. Overall, he has devastated opponents.

In transition, it is nearly impossible to stop Williamson because who would want to get in the way of a 6’7” 285-pound freight train? There are few in the country who are better than Williamson’s 1.321 points per possession in transition, per Synergy. Williamson clearly runs transition offense with immense power, but he also reaches high sprint speeds while utilizing nimble footwork and tight ball handling. His transition game can vary between dancing around opponents for an elegant lay-up or going full speed with the intention to destroy anything in his way. In the below clip we see how devastating Williamson is when in transition. He starts the play by securing the defensive rebound and immediately looking to run. He does a nice job of keeping the opposing guard on his hip, negating his ability to defend. As Zion crosses half court, he uses a well-timed in-and-out dribble with a stutter step to dispatch of Ty Jerome’s presence, clearing a lane for takeoff. Williamson then explodes for a thunderous dunk through the hard foul.

 

However, Williamson doesn’t just rely on his strength and speed to score. One of the most impressive parts of his game is his ballerina-like footwork and polished post-up game. Many college players only make one or two moves in the post before either passing out or forcing a heavily contested shot. Here we see Williamson’s footwork, patience, and post moves used to create an easy layup. As he posts up, the entire defense collapses towards him. Instead of forcing a shot right away he uses multiple shot fakes and pivots to create space. As Williamson dribbles towards the middle of the paint all three guards take steps towards him and his man is playing strong defense. He could go up for a shot but recognizes his defender’s positioning and that the weakside shot blocker will have a strong contest. To dispatch his primary defender, he shot fakes and then pivots and jab-steps to his right. His defender bites on the fake and leaves his feet just enough to take him out of the play. Williamson then pivots back towards the middle of the lane and goes under the late weakside block attempt for an easy layup.

 

This high level of footwork and basketball IQ is why Zion is such a dynamic scorer in the post. He scores 1.323 points per possession on post-up opportunities, per Synergy. This puts him in the 99th percentile in the country and is further evidence of why Williamson is so much more than just a freak athlete.

A lot of college players struggle with how to be effective when they don't have the ball. Many revert to becoming statues in the corner instead of actively finding open spaces and looking to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses. We’ve seen how effective Williamson is with the ball, but he is equally as dangerous without it. When Zion cuts to the rim he scores 1.413 points per possession (88th percentile) according to Synergy. He sees the floor well and has the innate ability to be in the right spot. This awareness and off-ball activity also carries over to his offensive rebounding ability.

Williamson’s power and explosiveness make him a great rebounder but when he combines these with his off-ball instincts his offensive rebounding devastates opponents. With Williamson’s athleticism, it is obvious to expect him to be a good rebounder, but we see plenty of great athletes struggle with this part of the game. Zion not only has the athleticism, but also the instincts and willingness to track and fight for rebounds. His ability to corral and put-back offensive rebounds are at an elite level. Off offensive rebounds, he scores 1.507 points per possession (97th percentile). Here we see his great second jump ability and how he can create multiple chances in one possession. On the first rebound, he explodes above everyone else on the court to tip it in. The tip doesn’t go in, but Williamson's great second jump and strength leads to him wrestling the ball away for his second offensive rebound of the possession. After out-jumping everyone twice, he earns an easy layup. Williamson’s instincts and competitiveness are impressive, but what really stands out is how he explodes off the floor not once not twice but three consecutive times without hesitation.

 

Passing

Williamson’s passing ability and vision is one of the most underrated parts of his game. He only averages 2.1 assists per game, but the passes he does make are well timed, well placed, and exhibit his great vision. We’ve covered Zion’s ability to score off the drive, but he can also find the open man as defenders collapse on him. Here we see a common Zion drive where he drives right and then spins back to the middle of the lane. Typically, we would see him go up for a layup or drop in a floater. This time though, his spin occurs farther away from the rim than usual, and his defender does a good job of staying with him. The resulting shot attempt would be a tough one but the weakside defender bails Williamson out. As Zion leaves his feet, the weakside defender leaves his man to contest Zion’s shot. Instead of forcing a bad shot, Williamson recognizes the rotation and drops a pass to his open teammate for a layup he gets fouled on.

 

Williamson is deadly in transition when he is looking to score, but he is also eager to set up his teammates for easy opportunities like we see here. Zion starts the transition offense after an absurd block (steal?) where he just rips the ball away and sprints in transition. The second he crosses half-court he sees that Kentucky hasn’t filled the lane and Barrett has beaten his man down the court. Zion loads up and displays his vision and accuracy as he delivers a perfect bounce pass between two defenders for an easy layup.

 

Defense

It is not only rare but also extremely difficult to be a great two-way player like Zion. His offensive versatility and impact are immense (134.9 offensive rating), but his impact on the defensive end (85.5 defensive rating) might be the most encouraging part about his game. The way that Williamson works on defense suggests that few things in the world disgust him more than getting scored on. He has averaged 2.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game this year. Below we see Zion’s impact as a weakside shot blocker. As Virginia gets the ball to the top of the key, we see Zion already recognize exactly how the play is going to develop. De’Andre Hunter easily drives around the soft defense and looks to have an easy layup. Unfortunately for him, Zion has been in full predator mode and has been stalking the ball from three passes ago. Williamson times his jump perfectly for a violent block.

 

Zion’s predatory instincts on defense are well displayed not only in his shot blocking but also with steals. He identifies when ball handlers are in trouble and pounces on the opportunity to force turnovers. Here we see Shamorie Ponds being hounded by Jones and struggling to maintain tight ball security. We also see Zion salivating at the opportunity which he quickly pounces on. As Ponds tries to turn back towards the middle of the floor, Williamson is on him in a flash and easily takes the ball for a quick transition dunk.

 

Going Forward

So, we know that Zion will likely lead Duke to a deep tournament run and be drafted number one. What’s after that? What type of NBA player will he be? Many out there believe that he is the best prospect since LeBron James, but I think that is unfair to Zion and does a disservice to the many great prospects between. Zion is one of the most unique prospects we’ve ever seen but there are still some red flags. His inability to shoot will create more problems in the NBA than it has in college. The NBA is full of great athletes and really smart defenders. He will face match-ups he’s never seen before and overcoming them will be demanding. Zion doesn’t need to be a prolific outside shooter, but he does need to be competent enough where teams can’t completely ignore him from out there. It may seem like I am nitpicking, and in some ways, I am, but if he is unable to improve his shooting consistency, his ability to score will be tested.

With that said, the odds of Zion being a franchise player are high. His combination of size, athleticism, and feel for the game is extremely rare. His scoring versatility and basketball IQ will make him an impact player from day one. His defense and competitiveness will set a tone and build an identity for whatever team he graces. My concerns about his shooting are mostly diluted by his desire to be great, love for the game, and high work ethic. Zion Williamson is one of the most unique sensations we’ve seen in recent years.

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