Why Zion Williamson Will Be an NBA Legend
He’s the most hyped amateur athlete since LeBron James. He has a gregarious personality inside an NFL tight end’s body. And his production on the court is exceeded only by his drive off it. He is Zion Williamson, and he's got next in the NBA.
The first overall pick in the 2019 draft, Williamson is being hailed as a savior for the New Orleans Pelicans, and he’s still a teenager. There’s a good reason for excitement in the Crescent City: The NBA has never seen an athlete like Williamson.
But his athleticism is only part of the story. Williamson's desire and basketball IQ combine to form what Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski calls a "perfect storm." Every element of that perfect storm has prepared Williamson for success.
Someone like Zion Williamson doesn’t come around once in a generation. He comes along once, and this is why he’ll exceed expectations in the NBA.
His Name is Zion.
Shaquille O'Neal was the first "Shaq" or “Shaquille” in the NBA, and his career worked out. Same for "LeBron" and "Kobe."
There have been over 4,300 players in NBA history, but Zion Williamson is the first to ever be named Zion. If he follows in the footsteps of Shaq, LeBron and Kobe, he should be fine.
Additionally, according to Merriam Webster Dictionary, the word "Zion" has meanings of heaven and utopia. So Zion’s name works in both a historical and spiritual sense.
He Has an NFL Body.
When LeBron James joined the NBA in 2003, scouts raved about him already having an NBA body at 18 years old. Well, Williamson is the same age and has roughly 60 pounds of muscle over a rookie James.
Having strength and muscle is one thing, but functionally using it is another, and Williamson already has mastered that part of his game. He can absorb contact and go right through defenders either with his feet planted on the floor or while in the air. He’s also stout defensively, which should help him defend taller players.
But the scariest thing about Williamson’s physique is that it will get more refined with the help of a professional strength and conditioning team. He’ll get leaner, lose some of the baby fat and get stronger.
Zion’s Competitive Drive is Unmatched.
Everyone in the NBA is talented. That's why they’re in the NBA. Everyone in the NBA has athleticism, although some have more than others. But not everyone in the NBA has a competitive spirit and drive to be great. Many players are just playing for the paycheck.
Zion Williamson has an attitude you can’t teach at a basketball camp or clinic — he goes all out every single game. It’s one thing to get up for big games against ACC rivals, but it’s another to be diving for loose balls against Army like Williamson did as a freshman.
Williamson already has elite athleticism and competitiveness, and those two factors alone won Russell Westbrook an MVP award. When Zion’s talent level catches up with those other two attributes, being an MVP will be the floor. And they’ll be no ceiling for his achievements.
He Sees the Big Picture.
The Duke-North Carolina rivalry is the greatest in college basketball, and Williamson chose the Blue Devils over the Tar Heels, among other schools. Still, Williamson’s favorite basketball player is the most famous Tar Heel of them all: Michael Jordan.
Williamson recognizes MJ’s greatness and can put aside the rivalry to pay his respects. That kind of perspective will benefit him in the NBA, whether it’s game-related, enduring the season or navigating the lifestyle.
Having perspective and seeing the big picture will allow Zion Williamson to become the best version of himself.
Zion Plays Defense.
Athleticism and effort are two things that will never be questioned about Williamson.
Effort is a huge part of playing defense, and Williamson doesn’t mail it in on that end of the court. He ranked in the top five in both steals per game (2.1) and blocks per game (1.8) in the ACC, and he was one of just two players to reach both of those averages in all of college basketball.
In fact, he is just one of four players from Power 5 schools to match those averages since the 1992-93 season.
Many players have carved out long NBA careers just from competing on the defensive end, and none of those players had the athleticism or potential Williamson has.
His Production Is Unequaled.
Williamson is more than just ferocious dunks and highlight reels as the steak equals the sizzle.
He set two college basketball marks that show he is both efficient and productive. According to Sports Reference, Williamson had the highest player efficiency rating (PER) of any college player since 2010. This stat is akin to passer rating in football and takes into account all of the major basketball stats in addition to shooting percentages.
In terms of production, Williamson also set the record for box score plus/minus, which dates back to 2011. That means no player over the last decade contributed more to his team both offensively and defensively than Williams did.
He Did Not Specialize in Basketball as a Kid.
ESPN had a recent article about youth basketball and how many players are "ticking time bombs" once they reach the NBA because they’ve had so much wear-and-tear on their bodies from specializing in basketball as kids.
This won't be an issue with Williamson, who played many different sports as a kid growing up in South Carolina. His first sport was soccer, and then he was a quarterback in football. Only later did he then concentrate solely on basketball, but this type of cross-training has proven to save an athlete’s body from injuries later in their careers.
And with his talent and work ethic, injury is the only thing that could derail Williamson from being a superstar.
Even Coach K Has Never Seen Anything Like Zion.
From Grant Hill to Corey Maggette to Jason Williams to Jayson Tatum, Coach K has coached some special athletes at Duke. But he called Zion Williamson "the most unique athlete I’ve coached at Duke."
Now, athleticism alone doesn’t guarantee a player will be great, but it sure doesn’t hurt a player’s potential. And Coach K doesn't just rave about Williamson’s athletic ability alone. He also praised the phenom’s people skills and work ethic.
Combine all of that together, and you have a "perfect storm for uniqueness and success," as Coach K described Zion.
Zion Loves This Game.
One of the most memorable moments of Williamson’s Duke career came when he blew out his shoe in a nationally televised game against North Carolina. Williamson also suffered an injury on the play that knocked him out for six games.
He could have sat out the rest of Duke’s season and still been the No. 1 draft pick in the NBA draft, but Williamson ignored pleas from even NBA players to call it quits, and he returned to play in the ACC tournament. A more serious injury could have changed the course of Williamson’s pro career, but he loves the game of basketball and playing with his teammates too much to remain on the sideline.
This "love of the game" isn’t always present in NBA players. But it’s clear that Williamson doesn't play for just money and fame. His passion for basketball will set him up well in the NBA.
He Brings His Best Against the Best.
While Williamson did get to pad his stats when Duke beat up on the mid-majors early in the season, he saved his best performances for when it mattered most.
Williamson averaged 22.6 points per game through the regular season before missing a month after the infamous shoe blowout. When he returned in mid-March, Duke won the ACC tournament. Williamson played three games there before four more in the NCAA tournament, and his scoring average jumped to 26.4 ppg for those seven games.
He knew that all of the college basketball eyes were upon him, and he still rose to the moment.
Zion Respects Basketball History.
When Williamson was born in 2000, Michael Jordan was a year away from coming back to the NBA and playing for the Wizards, Magic Johnson was four years into retirement, and Larry Bird was eight years into retirement. Yet Williamson cites all three as models for his game.
He doesn't just throw out those names because they were great players. He understands each player’s game: Jordan’s competitiveness, Bird’s heart, and the excitement Magic brought. Zion wants to bring the same things every time he’s on the court.
Williamson may have only seen YouTube highlights of those three legends, instead of watching live games, but he’s done his homework on discovering what made the greats great.
He's a Big Man With Guard Skills.
Before a nine-inch growth spurt in high school, Williamson was his team’s starting point guard. While his physique may have changed over time, his point guard skills didn’t diminish, and they were often on display at Duke.
When starting point guard Tre Jones missed time due to injury, Coach K moved Williamson to point forward, and he responded with a career-high seven assists and just two turnovers.
He has enough ballhandling ability and court vision to play that role in spurts and is similar to Draymond Green in terms of his ability to run an offense as a small-ball center.
He Has a Southpaw Advantage.
As with every sport, being left-handed in basketball has its advantages because it’s not the norm. Players are used to playing and practicing against righties, so everything is reversed against a lefty.
When you first learn to play defense as a kid, your basketball coach tells you to force the ballhandler to dribble with his off-hand, which is usually the left hand. That gets ingrained into players’ minds, and even as they advance all the way to the pros, they subconsciously force ballhandlers left. That is until they face a lefty and have to reprogram their defensive tactics to force him right.
In other words, defenders have to think more when facing a lefty instead of reacting, and that alone will be an advantage for Williamson.
He’s Used to Playing With Other Stars.
Williamson was the No. 2 recruit in the country when he landed at Duke while fellow incoming freshmen RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish were the No. 1 and No. 3 players, respectively.
Not only did Duke become the first school to land the top three players in one recruiting class, but Williamson also spent his lone college season playing with guys as heralded as he was.
No one on the Pelicans has the popularity that Williamson has, but the rookie also won’t be the best player on his team to start.
He’s used to sharing the spotlight, and the ball, and his willingness to do both should make New Orleans an attractive option to NBA stars.
He Is Really Young.
In this one-and-done time in college basketball, many of the top overall draft picks are teenagers when Adam Silver announces their names on draft night. But even in this era, Williamson is the youngest of that bunch and was the first 18-year-old to be drafted since Dwight Howard in 2004.
That also happened to be the last year that players could bypass college for the NBA, and with players staying in college multiple years beforehand, that makes Williamson the youngest No. 1 overall pick to come out of college in NBA history.
The only thing that NBA teams value as much as length and athleticism is youth, and Williamson being so young makes him far from a finished product.
Think about this: David Robinson didn’t debut in the NBA until he was 24, and he went onto a Hall of Fame career. Williamson will have five years of NBA experience by the time he turns 24.
His Weaknesses Can Be Masked.
Ben Simmons was the Rookie of the Year without making a 3-pointer. Giannis Antetokounmpo won the MVP without a jumper. And Charles Barkley is in the Hall of Fame despite having the worst 3-point percentage in NBA history.
The biggest knock against Williamson is his outside shot, but his peers and those before him have shown that he can still be highly successful without shooting it like Steph Curry. All three of those aforementioned players did so many other things that you forgot about their jumpers, and Williamson is the same way.
He succeeded at Duke despite making just 33.8 percent of 3-point shots from the shorter, college 3-point line, and he will succeed in the NBA as a player while improving his outside jump shot.
The Pelicans Play to His Strengths.
In Williamson’s lone college season, Duke had the third-fastest adjusted tempo of any Power 5 school. Also, during the 2018-19 season, the Pelicans had the third-fastest pace of any NBA team. Thus, Williamson is going from one up-tempo system to another, and that’s the kind of style he excels in.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry is from the coaching tree of Mike D’Antoni and his "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns, and Gentry always has employed a run-and-gun style. That’s exactly what Williamson needs at this stage of his career as he refines his halfcourt game.
Don’t expect to see lots of Williamson post-ups in the NBA (at least in the beginning), but do expect to see lots of the alley-oops and open-court dunks that made him famous at Duke.
Zion’s Comparisons Were Pretty Good, Too.
When a prospect first joins the NBA, his game is compared to the games of current or former players. With those comps, there often are floors and ceilings regarding who a player would resemble at his absolute worst and absolute best.
Williamson’s ceiling comparisons are guys like LeBron James and Charles Barkley — all-time greats. But Williamson’s floor comparisons are no slouches either as they are guys like Larry Johnson and Shawn Kemp — two of the best power forwards of the 1990s.
When your "floor" is being a multi-time All-Star, there’s no way you can be a bust.
New Orleans Will Be Patient With Him.
New Orleans is a football town, with the Saints’ fan base being one of the most passionate of any sports team going back decades. The Pelicans, on the other hand, go back exactly a decade and are the NBA’s second-newest franchise.
They moved from New Orleans to Oklahoma City, then back to New Orleans. They changed their name from the Hornets to the Pelicans and their best two players in franchise history left the team in their primes for Los Angeles.
What does all of this have to do with Williamson? Because of the checkered and underwhelming history of the Pelicans, there are low expectations for the team. Forget winning a championship. Williamson getting to the conference finals would be something that’s never happened before in New Orleans.
The focus of the city always will be on the Saints, and at the very least, Williamson just has to not demand a trade to Los Angeles to not draw the ire of fans.
He’s Not Anthony Davis.
Before Anthony Davis joined the Lakers, he was getting booed by the Pelicans' home crowd for stating his desire to leave the franchise. Whoever replaced Davis as the face of the team was going to be welcomed with open arms. But the Pelicans got the best possible result by winning the lottery and drafting a generational talent like Williamson.
Chris Paul was the last great player to demand out of New Orleans, and he was replaced by a journeyman point guard named Greivis Vasquez. The Venezuelan-born Vasquez was adored in New Orleans despite having one-tenth of Paul’s talent.
Williamson is on par with Davis as a prospect, so imagine how the city will feel about him. The positive reinforcement Williamson receives will put him at ease in a city he had never been to prior to getting drafted.
Before long, don't be surprised if The Big Easy becomes Zion Williamson's town and the NBA turns into his league.
He's Already Dealt With a Setback
Williamson's regular-season debut with the Pelicans had to wait. He tore his meniscus during the preseason and had to push back his debut from October to January.
There's a long history of NBA superstars who have dealt with injuries early in their careers, became more aware of how to take care of their bodies and had lengthy careers. Most notably, Michael Jordan won Rookie of the Year, then broke his foot early in his second season and missed most of the year before coming back for a legendary playoff performance against the Boston Celtics.
Williamson dealt with heavy scrutiny after his meniscus surgery — not to mention the great play of fellow rookie Ja Morant — but seemed to weather the storm just fine.
Zion's Debut Was Spectacular
Williamson finally made his debut for the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 22, 2020, in a 122-117 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. And despite appearing to be quite a bit overweight after missing three months recovering from a torn meniscus, the 2019 NBA No. 1 overall pick put up 22 points and 7 rebounds.
But it wasn't his final line that grabbed headlines. It was how he did it. With the game still very much up for grabs, Williamson scored 17 consecutive points over 3:08 in the fourth quarter. That kind of debut performance, in just one game, erased much of the doubts and skepticism regarding his return.
Records Are Already Beginning to Fall
Even with a shortened rookie season, Williamson was able to set an NBA record almost right off the bat.
At just 19 years old, Williamson became the first and only teenager (so far) to score over 20 points in 10 consecutive games when he went off for 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting in a 116-104 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 28, 2020.
Williamson would push his streak of games with 20 points to 13 games. Good luck to future NBA teenagers with ever breaking that record.
Doing It Against the Best
There was a tremendous amount of hype around Zion Williamson's regular-season NBA debut. It was ratcheted up even more for his first game against superstar LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 25, 2020, in Los Angeles.
Wiliamson was ready — he scored 29 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in a 118-109 loss. That was just an appetizer for what was coming up next.
In his second game against the Lakers, Williamson went off for a career-high 35 points and 7 rebounds in a 122-114 loss on March 1, 2020, in New Orleans.
Like Any Superstar, There's Controversy
Like many other NBA superstars, there's been a tinge of controversy around Zion Williamson in his rookie year. He was sued by Gina Ford Prime Marketing for $100 million for breach of contract after he changed agents to CAA shortly before being drafted in 2019.
At the center of the lawsuit is an alleged $400,000 loan to Williamson and his family during his time playing for Duke. Williamson's team is countersuing on the basis that there are laws in North Carolina (where he signed the contract initially) that protect amateur athletes.
It also should be pointed out that Williamson, who left the NBA bubble in Orlando on July 16, 2020, to attend to a family emergency, paid the salaries of all the employees at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans after the NBA suspended games at the beginning of March 2020.