Zion: Can the Duke Star’s Game Translate to The NBA?

If you’ve switched your T.V. to SportsCenter at least once this basketball season, you’ve likely heard the name Zion about 15 times. But, who can blame them? Spartanburg native Zion Williamson is one of the most exciting players of all time. His electrifying style of play turns games into dunk contests. At 6’7 and 285 pounds with a 40+” vertical, Zion is simply a freak of nature.

After dominating in high school and on the AAU circuit, critics raised concerns about how Williamson’s game will transition to college, where stout defenses are more likely to clog lanes and force Zion out to the perimeter. But, 7 games into the season, Zion has only seen his NBA draft stock improve. Leading the ACC in blocks, field goal percentage, offensive rebounds, player efficiency rating, and box plus/minus (and trailing just teammate R.J. Barrett in points), Zion has been dominant. He has continued to pull out rim-shaking windmill dunks and looks even more athletic than he did in high school. But the reality is that, no matter how much success he has, this was will Zion’s first and last year at Duke.

In today’s basketball world, NCAA basketball has become nothing more than a requirement for top NBA prospects, serving as a season-long roadblock in the way of being a lottery pick and receiving a generous NBA contract. Williamson is currently projected by many to be a lock at the number one pick. He’s an once-in-a-generation type player and any team would be foolish to pass up on him, just because we’ve never seen anybody like him. He’s been called an athletic Charles Barkley. A 285 pound LeBron. A bulky Dominique Wilkins. But none of these comparisons are truly accurate, because we’ve never seen a player with the skillset, athleticism, and size of Zion.

But, if Williamson is a never-before-seen type of player, it is impossible to gauge his potential. Though doubts of his game transitioning to the college-level fade with every 20+ point game the freshman has, the prospect of Zion being the 1st selection in the NBA Draft is an interesting one, because he is far from a safe pick. There’s no doubt that his ceiling is enormous. The kid could be the next LeBron. But the concern lies in Williamson’s floor. Say he gets taken 1st overall, but he finds himself unable to drive to the basket and dominate in the post against bigger and stronger opponents in the NBA―how bad could Zion possibly turn out?

Today’s NBA, thanks largely in part to Steph Curry and Steve Kerr, focuses on the perimeter shot. 7’+ centers such as Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic are sharpshooters. Point guards are expected to be hitting 40% of 3s. The 3-ball is becoming the most important aspect of basketball, but Williamson shoots just 20% from deep range. If he is forced to take jump shots and threes, Zion’s game loses its strongest dimension. He’s a one trick pony, but that one trick hasn’t been stopped yet. But he also hasn’t been guarded by Joel Embiid or Draymond Green before.

Another factor to consider is potential career-ending injuries that Zion exposes himself to. His physical style of play has already resulted in injuries during high school and the physicality will only increase in the NBA. At 285 pounds, Zion’s legs are carrying a lot of weight and the force and impact in which he lands could take a toll on his knees, leading to all kinds of potential injuries.

Defensively, Zion racks up blocks and has very good defensive instincts. But his lack of focus and effort on that side of the court could catch up to him when playing against world-class athletes. His conditioning will need to improve, but an NBA team should be able to whip him into shape, just as Coach K is doing at Duke right now.

Zion is a positionless player in a positionless league. But for an NBA team to tank in this year’s draft to take Williamson #1 is a huge risk. As an athlete, Zion can’t be matched. But the bottom line is that his skillset and physical style of play are going to be adjusted to and, if he is unable to expand it, his game will not make a smooth transition to the NBA.