- Duke has been eliminated from the NCAA tournament and Zion Williamson's lone college season is done. So how will this transcendent talent translate to the NBA? NBA scouts consider.
For months now, Zion Williamson has been the best conversation topic in basketball. There may have been louder, more chaotic stories (the AD trade request during Super Bowl week), and there are other stories that will have a bigger impact on the sport (Kevin Durant's free agency in July), but if you're looking to make small talk with basketball fans, nothing is more fun than Zion. He arrived in Durham, N.C., with years' worth of Internet hype behind him, his game in college was even better than those YouTube videos advertised, and he'll leave Duke as one of the best college basketball players we've seen in 25 years.
Now that it's likely over, the subtext of all the Zion fascination moves to the surface: Where is this going next? How good can he be really be? What will his game look like in the NBA?
To help answer those questions back in November, a Western Conference scout initially compared his game to Charles Barkley and Larry Johnson. But when pressed for more details, the scout changed his mind. As he told SI, "There f--king isn't anybody [to compare him to]. At 285 [pounds] he'd be the second-heaviest player in the league, [and] he's bringing the ball up the court and going straight to the rim like a freight train. I don't know how you guard this guy in college. I guess in the NBA they'll throw length at him, but even then, he may just take guys out on the perimeter."
After Sunday's Elite Eight loss, an Eastern Conference scout noted the combination of athleticism and passing and threw out Blake Griffin as a comparison. "People forget how good Blake was at his peak," he said. "I mean I guess some people would tell you his game is better for the modern NBA now. But there were a few years with those Clippers teams he was a top-five player in the league and they were winning mid-50s every year. Obviously a lot of that was CP, but yeah, that's what Zion can do. And everyone at Duke says he's just the best kid, too. Really hard worker, loves his teammates."
A third scout offered another comparison. "His closest analog in the NBA is probably Draymond Green, just way more athletic," the scout told SI. "Draymond Green with rockets in his ass. Play the four, play a little smallball five, drive the lane, pass the ball, switch and guard all five positions. Draymond's pretty skilled, but [Zion] is a lot more athletic, and he's stronger. He can finish around the rim better than Draymond, because he's three feet higher [in the air] than Draymond."
During a media session at All-Star Weekend, Shaq and Charles Barkley threw out questions about who Zion would guard at the next level. If he's playing the three, they wondered, could he guard other threes? On the position question, the third scout was clear. "'Can't guard threes' is stupid," the third scout said. "He can guard one through five, and he will. That's probably his best skill—guard everybody. He's so fast, his foot speed is incredible, his strength. Like this guy can guard Joel Embiid, this guy can guard Kyrie Irving. This guy can guard everybody. Offensively, he's not a perfect fit at any position, but that's how you make mistakes, worrying about what the guy can't do when what he can do is incredible."
Some like "Supercharged Draymond" is my favorite comp for Zion. His length (6'10" wingspan) doesn't match Draymond (7'1"), so his skills as a rim protector probably won't be the same, but so much of what makes Draymond special—endless activity on his defense, high IQ, skills as a secondary playmaker, emotional impact on his teammates—is exactly what makes Zion great. The difference, obviously, will be Zion's ability to finish plays better than Draymond could ever dream. That's the supercharged part of the analogy. That's when you start sprinkling in some young Blake Griffin and a combination of speed, power, and handles that look like new-age Barkley. Particularly with the NBA's new freedom of movement emphasis, Zion should be basically impossible to stop one-on-one, and that may be true in his rookie year.
None of this is to say that Zion is a sure thing to own the NBA one day. His athleticism and IQ will give him a high floor, but not every scout is as bullish about his ability to guard one through five, and he's going to be undersized in almost any role he plays.One development coach told SI in early March that Zion will need to improve his body and "cut like 30 pounds of good weight and make it great weight." To that end, for all the comparisons to Blake Griffin, it bears mentioning that Blake's body broke down midway through his prime and forced him to reinvent his game on the fly. Even in the best-case scenario—which Blake is basically living in Detroit—that kind of transformation generally leaves players half as dominant as they once were. Worrying about potential injuries, particularly in the second half of Zion's career, is fair.
As for the criticism you're most likely to find in any Internet comment section, Zion's lack of a reliable jumper is real. It probably won't keep him from playing at an All-Star level and it helps that he's not afraid to take threes, but he may never be better than an average shooter. Early on, he should be much better in the open court than he is in a half-court offense. Long term, at least insofar as we demand that players as famous as Zion take the final shot and play the savior in crucial moments, there could be a disconnect between what Zion is expected to be and what he actually is. Someone asked me Sunday what Zion's ceiling was; I said that he could be a top-five player in the best-case scenario, but he'll probably never be the best player in the NBA because of his limits as a scorer on the perimeter.
In any case, the best part of all these Zion conversations is that they never end with definitive answers. They can't. We've never seen a basketball player like this. Zion has strengths without parallel and limits that are impossible to contextualize among the current crop of NBA stars. He's so smart and athletic that he'll almost definitely be very good; beyond that baseline, there's room to adjust expectations up or down, as you like.
All we can say for sure is that the vast majority of one-and-done seasons are disjointed and underwhelming, and basketball fans just finished watching the perfect inverse of that story. With wild Internet hype and a round frame that wasn't guaranteed to translate against bigger and faster players, it wouldn't have been shocking to watch Zion struggle. Instead, his season became a surprise that we all found out about together. People tuned in to see a dunker overpowering helpless college kids, and then the rest of his game was every bit as shocking—the vision, his speed, the touch around the rim, those humiliating blocks 18 feet from the hoop, how hard he played, how much he clearly loved his teammates. Zion at Duke exceeded expectations in about eight different categories.
Now it's time for the NBA.