Can Zion Williamson live up to LeBron-level hype? NBA scouts break down Duke phenom's game

Yahoo Sports

It’s easy to quantify the sensation of Duke’s Zion Williamson. He’s got 2.3 million Instagram followers, and his dunks, blocks and bull rushes to the rim have turned him into the one-man highlight reel of the 2018-19 college basketball season. At one point in late January, the Zion factor helped Duke have six of the sport’s nine most-watched games on television.

Simply put, Duke freshman Zion Williamson is the most celebrated and anticipated player to come through the American basketball system since LeBron James in 2002-03. The unique combination of his bowling ball build, powder-keg explosion and Formula One motor have made Williamson the sport’s biggest on-court story this season. There really isn’t a close second.

“He’s the most unique prospect since LeBron [James],” former Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told Yahoo Sports. “If you remember back to when they started televising LeBron’s [high school] games on ESPN, it was must-see TV. That’s what Zion is now. People tune in to see what he’s doing.”

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As Williamson lowers his shoulder and tomahawks his way into America’s consciousness, there’s less certainty about him as an NBA prospect than collegiate sensation. No one is projecting him as a bust, but there’s also justifiable skepticism whether the sport’s searing viral star — a position-agnostic 6-foot-7, 285-pound jumping jack averaging 22.3 points and 9.0 rebounds — can become a consistent NBA All-Star.

Yahoo Sports spoke to more than a dozen NBA scouts, executives and college coaches who’ve both faced and scouted Williamson. The results were a compelling mixture of comparisons, projections and declarations that vary from future Hall of Famer to sturdy NBA starter — from Charles Barkley to Rodney Rogers.

“It’s amazing how divisive people are about who he will become,” said Army assistant coach Zak Boisvert, who saw Williamson live earlier this season when Army played Duke. “Even within our own staff, we had guys project a range from Blake Griffin to Julius Randle, that’s about a $150 million-dollar difference in salary.”

Zion Williamson has been the talk of college basketball this season, but how will his talent translate in the NBA? (Getty)
Zion Williamson has been the talk of college basketball this season, but how will his talent translate in the NBA? (Getty)

To be certain, it would be a surprise if anyone aside from Williamson went No. 1 in the NBA draft. His Duke teammate, smooth 6-foot-7 wing R.J. Barrett, is the only other realistic consideration. One veteran NBA executive said he preferred Barrett at No. 1, noting a more refined game and translatable skill set.

There are legitimate questions about Williamson’s shooting stroke, passing and decision making. Hartford coach John Gallagher adored Williamson’s energy, motor and how much his teammates enjoyed playing with him. But he also saw a prospect that needs polish.

“He has three cards, and he needs to add two — shooting and quick decisions with the ball,” Gallagher said. “When NBA people overlooked Luka Doncic, they undervalued skill, passing and shot making. That’s what Zion does not have. Zion is going to have a great career, the question is whether he can add those two cards.”

Williamson’s high-end skills – jumping, finishing and changing direction – are undeniable. All of the dozen people Yahoo Sports spoke to also complimented how hard he plays, something that can’t be taught. But as his draft hype surges one lob at a time, a thorny question will determine whether the one-and-done generation’s most heralded player will have a career that lives up his lofty billing: How does his skill set translate to the NBA?

Here are four questions that will determine his viability as a future NBA star.

What’s the best comparison for Zion?

First off, the LeBron James comparisons are based on hype and attention, not his basketball ceiling. Comparing anyone to LeBron James is unfair for obvious reasons. What’s fair? One veteran NBA executive calls him “one of the most dominant players we’ve seen in the draft since Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns.” In other words, he should be on the higher-end of No. 1 picks we’ve seen in the last decade.

As for an actual player comparison? There’s a medley. McDonough brought up both Charles Barkley and Blake Griffin, saying that he’s “every bit as explosive” as Griffin was early in his career.

Another NBA executive brought up Shawn Kemp, the former Sonics dynamo, in terms of pure power. He also mentioned Dominique Wilkins, who fits the mold of Williamson in that he was more of a scorer than a shooter.

Shawn Kemp of the Seattle Supersonics attempts a dunk during the 1991 Slam Dunk Contest. (Getty)
Shawn Kemp of the Seattle Supersonics attempts a dunk during the 1991 Slam Dunk Contest. (Getty)

Arizona State associate head coach Rashon Burno called him a “combination of Larry Johnson and Charles Barkley,” projecting him as a superstar because the NBA is a mismatch league and there are few who can guard him. Princeton coach Mitch Henderson invoked a combination of Draymond Green and Barkley. Gallagher mentioned Rogers, a crafty and undersized forward who averaged double-digit scoring over his 13-year NBA career.

A different NBA scout chuckled at searching for comparisons because of the way the NBA has evolved. He also mocked the notion that a franchise would pick anyone else No. 1.

“I don’t get freaked out that he doesn’t fit into a box,” he said. “When there’s a freak at that level, you can spend months talking yourself out of it. But it’s right there in front of you.”

What strengths will carry over to the NBA?

When Princeton played at Duke earlier this year, Henderson noticed Williamson’s energy the moment the national anthem ended. He bounded around like a boxer, a kinetic and contagious blur that stuck with him months later.

“There’s an energy that comes out of him that will help him overcome any deficiencies,” Henderson said. “He has an inner gift. When the music comes on, he starts moving. Basketball is a game where you’re supposed to move a lot.”

McDonough dialed in on Williamson’s footwork and change of direction for his size, calling them “pretty spectacular.” He referenced his coast-to-coast dunk in the Virginia game, highlighted by an inside-out crossover at the top of the key, that ended in a right-handed tomahawk through a hard foul on his arm. (Zion is left-handed, making it even more impressive.)

“I was trying to think of how many guys in today’s NBA could do that,” McDonough said. “Maybe not five? Maybe not three? Physically what he can do skills wise, he’s such a unique prospect. There’s some moves he makes with his power, force and ability, I don’t know how you guard that.”

Rebounding typically translates, and while it’s not a dominant skill — his offensive rebounding percentage is No. 51 nationally and defensive is No. 372 in KenPom.com — no one projects him having issues on that level. Williamson grew up a guard, as he was 6-foot-3 as a high school sophomore, which gives him a handle and spin move that bely his body type. One NBA scout said he could see him taking spot duty as a point forward.

Most important, there’s a vibe about Williamson that will carry over to the next level.

“He’s a stone-cold winner,” Gallagher said. “He looks like a great teammate and someone you want in your program. It’s obvious people love being around him.”

What weaknesses have teams concerned?

This list begins with shooting. Williamson isn’t a terrible shooter, and there’s an expectation he’ll improve at the next level. (Think about how much better players like James, John Wall and Kawhi Leonard have become at shooting in the NBA.) But entering the draft, it’s the most glaring weakness as he essentially shoots a set shot. Williamson shoots 29.3 percent from 3 and 66.7 percent on free throws. “How good of a player he is in the NBA is how good of a shooter he becomes,” said a veteran executive.

How much work does his shot need?

“He doesn’t have a traditional stroke,” McDonough said. “He flips the ball a little bit. And there’s not great lift on his jump shot, which is ironic because he’s so explosive otherwise. He needs to tighten his mechanics and develop a more consistent stroke.”

Zion Williamson is averaging 22.3 points and nine rebounds per game this season. (Getty)
Zion Williamson is averaging 22.3 points and nine rebounds per game this season. (Getty)

The next concern is Williamson’s bulky body type. Injuries in high school allowed him to put on weight, but part of what made him such a phenom was how antithetical his explosiveness was compared to his body type. NBA teams are going to dig deep on his diet and conditioning, and one NBA scout pointed out that he’s “genuinely curious” how tall Williams is barefoot and what he actually weighs.

“His body will be interesting,” said another scout. “We haven’t seen a guy that big and explosive.” Another scout put it this way: “What happens when he’s in the best shape possible?”

The translation of that explosiveness is a divisive topic. Bounding through the frontcourt of Virginia, Hartford and Princeton is much different than the Bucks, Suns and Heat. He can certainly compete with that level of athleticism. But can he dominate it? His two-point percentage is No. 4 nationally at 75.8. But how effective will he be against bigger, stronger and faster athletes? Williamson’s passing is also considered pedestrian. He’s averaging 2.3 assists per game, and his decision making and distribution aren’t considered elite.

Teams will likely have to adjust their offense to Williamson, playing a stretch five to clear space and let him operate inside. Creativity will need be involved by a staff and front office. “A team is going to have to structure their offense,” said a scout, “to figure out how to best use him.”

What position will he play?

The consensus here is that it doesn’t matter, as the NBA has largely evolved into a position-less league, with the floor spread and different skills accentuated by mismatches. Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd pointed out that Justise Winslow played power forward at Duke and now plays point guard in the NBA. Williamson won’t be niched.

“He’s not a guy you can pigeonhole into a position,” said a veteran NBA scout. “He’s just a basketball player. The days are long gone where you pigeonhole guys into one position. I love how hard he plays, love the spirit about him.”

One of the things that impressed Henderson when Princeton played Duke earlier in the season was his athleticism and flexibility on defense.

“He’s so fast,” Henderson said. “He’ll be able to guard multiple positions and switch. I think that’s a large part of the successful players we’ve seen recently [translate to the NBA].”

And there are few who question Williamson’s success. The question will linger as to whether his professional achievement matches his collegiate acclaim.

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