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Zion Williamson dominated at Duke, but can he do that in the NBA? Six experts weigh in

Zion sums up season at Duke: ‘It was like a movie’

Duke star Zion Williamson summarized his first, and what might be his only, season at Duke.
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Duke star Zion Williamson summarized his first, and what might be his only, season at Duke.

Zion Williamson dominated his one year of college basketball in a way that few people ever have.

But can he do the same in the pros?

Williamson, 18, will likely be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft on June 20th after publicly declaring his intention to skip his final three years of eligibility at Duke. His combination of dynamic explosiveness and marketable charisma will be hard for any team to pass up.

But what then?

I asked six men that question. Three of them – Grant Hill, Reggie Miller and Bobby Jones — have already been elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The other three — Jay Bilas, Chris Webber and Kenny Smith — are well-regarded basketball experts and TV analysts.

Their consensus: Zion will undoubtedly be a good pro. But there’s no guarantee he will be a great one.

Whether he is elite or not, the six men said, mostly depends on how hard Williamson works, whether he can stay injury-free and whether he develops a consistent shot from the NBA three-point line. Let’s break it down into five categories.

Athleticism

At 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, Williamson jumps like he has a rocket strapped to his back. “His athleticism and explosiveness are pretty incredible,” said Hill, who along with Williamson represent two of the most athletic Duke players ever. “That differentiates him ... To me, he’s like a 280-pound Vince Carter.”

“He’ll be one of the most athletic players in the NBA,” Webber concurred.

“He’s a once-every-10-year college player,” Smith said. “The last guy I remember like him in college who dominated physically like that was Blake Griffin.”

The difference in the NBA is that everyone else is more athletic, too.

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Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) was the consensus college basketball player of the year for the 2018-19 season, in part due to dunks like this one against Virginia Tech. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

“While (his opponents) won’t have as much athletic ability as he has, they have enough to block his shot one-on-one,” Webber said. “It won’t be easy. It isn’t easy for anyone, except Shaq (O’Neal) or maybe Wilt (Chamberlain) to dominate with only your physical abilities. Zion is not going to be the biggest guy on the floor anymore. There are going to be guys who use their length against his strength.”

Weight

When I first saw Zion Williamson play, as a 16-year-old junior at Spartanburg Day School, he was listed at 235 pounds. Duke listed him at 285 this season, so Williamson has gained about 50 pounds over the past 27 months. Some of that is muscle, for sure. But some also say that Williamson would be better off if he lost some of that weight. If he doesn’t, he will easily be one of the NBA’s five heaviest players next season.

Williamson was the consensus national player of the year as a freshman at Duke, so obviously playing at 285 pounds didn’t hurt him a bit in college. But will his body survive the rigor of nearly 100 NBA games (including preseason and possible playoff games) in what will be his rookie year?

Jones gave an example. His last two years in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980s were also Charles Barkley’s first two years. Those two Philadelphia teams also included Julius “Dr. J” Erving.

“When Charles Barkley came into the league, he came in at 305 pounds,” Jones recalled. “Julius and I would sit there at practice and say: ‘This guy is not going to make it. He’s going to break his back, or tear his knees up, or something.’”

I asked whether Jones and Dr. J really meant that Barkley wasn’t going to “make it” unless he lost 50 pounds.

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Philadelphia 76ers forward Charles Barkley celebrates a play during the 1991 NBA All Star game at the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, NC. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“Yes,” Jones said. “And he did…. You just can’t carry that kind of weight. He didn’t. Charles dropped the weight and became a great player. I think Zion is the same way. I don’t think he needs (to play at) 280 pounds, 290 pounds, whatever he’s got.”

The Blue Devil freshman talks about his dunking prowess and the energy it provides the already hyper Cameron Crazies.

Jump shot

This is the one problematic aspect of his game that all six men mentioned. At Duke, Williamson shot a respectable 33.8 percent from the three-point line, but he compiled that percentage on a very limited number of attempts. Williamson sank 24 three-pointers in 33 games, and in nearly half Duke’s games he didn’t make a single trey.

Most of Williamson’s three-point attempts in college came off catch-and-shoot situations, and often the defender was at least three steps away. The book on Williamson has always been to take away the drive, to try not to get the ball dunked on your head and to gladly give up the outside shot.

“Zion’s shooting needs to improve,” Bilas said. “And it will.”

Said Webber: “The only obvious thing is to make sure he gets a consistent jump shot …The NBA is going to make you shoot off the dribble, and make you back up, and make you shoot from distance.”

Said Miller, one of the NBA’s purest shooters ever: “You’ve got to be able to… keep the defenses honest, and that’s by shooting. You’re saying, ‘Well, Ben Simmons or Giannis Antetokounmpo, they’re not great shooters and look at the success they’ve had!’ But those dudes are outliers — savants with the basketball.

“Zion Williamson doesn’t have the handles like those two guys. Nor does he have the height. So he’s got to develop a jump shot to keep the defense honest. If he does that, he’ll be ok … He’s great in the open court. He can finish with the best of them. We’ll see some highlight dunks, obviously. He has a chance to be a great pro. But that (shooting) has to be in place first.”

Watch a time-lapse as Duke's Zion Williamson slams in two on an alley-oop pass from Tre Jones during the Blue Devils' victory over Virginia Tech in their Sweet 16 matchup in Washington, D.C., Friday, March 29, 2019.

Work habits

No player enters the NBA as a finished product. One question is how hard Williamson will work to better himself — and what sort of teammate he will be — once he starts getting paid an eight-figure salary by both his new team and the manufacturer of his inevitable signature shoe.

The experts generally expected good things here, pointing to Williamson’s results in one season at Duke and the way his teammates gravitated to him.

“I like his attitude,” Jones said. “I like the way he’s unselfish.”

“I think Williamson will be an NBA all-star,” Bilas said, in part because he believes Williamson will improve his shooting by sheer effort.

“Every great player came into the league with a deficiency,” Smith said. “And the greatest of them all? They take those deficiencies and make them into strengths. They figure out how to do that. We’ll see if he’s able to do that.”

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Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) was all smiles in March when this photo was taken and likely will be again in June, when he is expected to become the No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 NBA draft. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Sheer luck

Here’s the intangible part of the equation. Would Michael Jordan have been as great as he was if Chicago didn’t pick him? Would Kobe Bryant still have been Kobe Bryant if the Charlotte Hornets had blown up their pre-arranged draft-day trade to the L.A. Lakers for Bryant in midstream and just kept him on draft night instead?

“It depends on who has that No. 1 pick,” said Miller of Williamson’s potential success as a rookie. The NBA’s draft lottery is May 14 – that night will largely determine Williamson’s initial NBA employer. (The Charlotte Hornets have a 1.5 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick in the lottery, but most likely will pick around No. 12).

“New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Phoenix, Dallas – we’re talking about the bottom feeders,” Miller continued. “And what type of infrastructure will be around him? How stable is that front office? How stable is the coaching situation? These all factor in your success as a young player.”

The other factor, of course, is injuries. Williamson blew out a shoe in a way few people had ever seen before against North Carolina, spraining his knee in the process. While that injury was relatively mild, the career of many would-be NBA superstars have been derailed by worse injuries.

So besides a lot of hard work and a better jumper, Williamson also is going to need a little luck. If he puts all three of those things together, though, the experts agreed: even in the NBA, “The Zion Show” won’t miss a single beat.



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