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Zion Williamson emerged from Instagram highlights and onto the American basketball scene with Bunyan-esque force, tomahawking his way into the mainstream with an elegant violence. During his lone season at Duke, his searing energy, incandescent smile and, of course, more dunks, raised his profile to one of the country’s most recognizable athletes.
Williamson’s coronation as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft arrives this week, as he’s poised to enter the league as one of its highest-profile players. Zion already has 3.3 million Instagram followers — the same as Draymond Green and a half-million more than NFL star Ezekiel Elliott — and Bono-like one-name recognition. Not coincidentally, he also projects as a generational marketing juggernaut, as early estimates of his first shoe deal are in the neighborhood of $100 million.
Simply put, there’s been no more anticipated player to enter the NBA since LeBron James in 2003 — few American athletes have received this much attention before turning professional.
When Williamson inevitably arrives in New Orleans as a rebuilding cornerstone of the post-Anthony Davis era, there remains an aura of mystery: How will his game translate to the NBA on the court? All season long, NBA types have struggled to come up with comparisons for Williamson, as there are not a lot of 6-foot-7, 285-pound wrecking balls with the dexterity to pirouette before dunking.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski drilled down on what Zion could be like as an NBA player with Yahoo Sports last week. He didn’t hold back in projecting Williamson’s career arc. “He may be an All-Star right away,” Krzyzewski said in a phone interview. He added: “There’s no ceiling, really. He doesn’t have a weakness. He may not shoot it as well as he will, but he shoots it well.”
In interviews with a half-dozen college coaches and NBA scouts, the consistent unknown variable that comes up in Williamson’s game is his jump shot. Williamson finished the season averaging 22.6 points and 8.9 rebounds while sweeping all of the National Player of the Year honors. His 72 dunks in 33 games became the season’s persistent backdrop. (Former Duke star Marvin Bagley actually had 26 more dunks in the same amount of games, but Williamson’s raw power is likely the difference in attention.)
There are flaws, however. Williamson showcased a jump shot in which his feet barely left the ground. His left-handed stroke has decent mechanics, but the ability to refine those and evolve as a jump shooter remain the final key to unlocking the full matrix of his boundless potential.
Williamson shot just 33.8 percent from 3-point range and 64 percent from the free-throw line, both pedestrian numbers that should rise once he reaches the NBA. Krzyzewski had no doubt that Williamson would put in the requisite work to grow those areas, which for prospects often dictates their career arc.
“He wants to be special,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a gift from God, really, for a coach. I loved every second that I coached him. He has to be given the freedom to be himself and learn to play against men.”
Krzyzewski said he’s expressed to Williamson that he’d like him to attend the USA Basketball training camp in August to learn the habits and receive the advice of NBA pros.
Krzyzewski said Williamson has a head start on a few aspects of adjusting to the NBA. On the floor, he says Zion’s background in high school and AAU of playing point guard before a growth spurt has afforded him patience, decision making and unselfishness that’s beyond his years. Off the floor, the media circus and Beatles-like environment for road games gave him a window into what life will be like in the NBA.
“He needs to have room to grow to the greatness he deserves to grow to,” Krzyzewski said. “He has all the intangibles and is extremely intelligent. He’s way ahead maturity-wise. He’s humble and a great teammate. He can affect the environment around him in a really unbelievable way.”
Krzyzewski gave a bit of insight into the touchstone moment of Williamson’s regular season at Duke. Zion sprained his left knee in February after his Nike sneaker blew out against North Carolina. The moment redefined the reach of a viral video for college basketball and prompted an unintentional referendum for amateurism.
“We basically just said, ‘You don’t have to play,’ I understand,” Krzyzewski said. “He wanted to play. I was amazingly conservative in keeping him out. The big picture is too big for him.”
Krzyzewski was just as effusive of RJ Barrett, the presumptive No. 3 pick in the NBA draft. Krzyzewski predicted Barrett “will be an All-Star” and said Barrett and Williamson are the only two players in this draft who are essentially sure things. “The basketball Gods gifted me them,” he said.
Just how Williamson will be used came more into focus over the weekend, as the Pelicans added point guard Lonzo Ball, wing Brandon Ingram and shooting guard Josh Hart. The Pelicans already have stalwart guard Jrue Holiday, who averaged 21.2 points and 7.7 assists last year.
Former Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry, who recently left to become associate head coach at Purdue, pointed out that the Pelicans have consistently played at a breakneck pace under coach Alvin Gentry. New Orleans finished in the NBA’s top three in points the past two seasons, which should accentuate some of the skill set that Williamson showcased in college.
“The Pelicans are pushing the ball on makes and misses,” Shrewsberry said. “[Williamson] being able to get out and run will allow him to take advantage of his speed and athleticism.”
The halfcourt is where things will be trickier for Williamson, at least until he develops more consistency from the outside. The Pelicans should put a premium on surrounding him with shooters, because it will likely be a few years before Williamson becomes a reliable option from the outside.
Georgia coach Tom Crean said Krzyzewski hasn’t gotten enough credit for how much Williamson developed while at Duke, pointing to nuances like “process poise,” as he’d often wait until the third time touching the ball during a possession to initiate his own offense.
Crean pointed out there’s often more open jump shots for players in the NBA, which is why that aspect of his game remains crucial to his development.
“He’s going to translate huge, as long as his development stays really, really strong,” Crean said. “He’s so young, and he’s going to keep getting better.”
Shrewsberry predicted that NBA teams won’t put smaller players on Williamson, as they’ll be too much of a liability in attempting to keep him off the offensive glass. The likely result will be bigger guys who play a step off him and dare him to shoot.
Playing off Williamson is a Catch-22 as well — it could be an invitation for him to generate momentum and blow past the defender. But the development of a jump shot will leave defenses even more compromised.
“He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said in a phone interview. “He’s a lot like Charles [Barkley], except that he’s bigger and stronger. People compare him to Rodney Rogers or Charles, but he’s so much more dynamic and physical.”
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