• Quinn Pilkey

NBA Draft '19: Zion Williamson Season Preview

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Zion Williamson is more than just a dunk machine.

It’s tempting to label him as just that, an athletic mountain of a man that has a vendetta against every rim he sees. But in just three preseason games at Duke, he’s put the nation on alert. It’s becoming clear that Williamson is much more than what the YouTube highlight reels and viral tweets suggest.

Of course, the first thing you notice watching Williamson is the athleticism, especially for a young man of his size. He made waves when Duke officially listed him at 285 pounds -- bigger than all but 20 players on the university’s 110-man football roster and every current NBA player save the 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanović. Yet Williamson can jump out of the gym, setting a Duke basketball record in the vertical leap and making more headlines by dunking from the free throw line in practice. And his athleticism isn’t just limited to straight up-and-down leaping, either -- the Spartanburg, S.C. native runs the court well and has a second-jump ability that would be impressive for a player of any size.

Perhaps more impressive than Williamson’s athleticism is his gracefulness and agility. When he drives to the basket, one might expect to see something akin to a bull in a china shop. Instead, Williamson is more like a bull skydiving, a massive figure spinning and sliding through defenses with more grace than he has any right to possess. That’s not to say he can’t use his strength, either -- he knows how to put his body to use against smaller, weaker players, and he manages to do it without fouling.

Offensively, Zion is a matchup nightmare. Check him with someone close to his size, and he’ll be too fast. Try someone smaller on him? Too strong. His three-point shot is still lacking -- he shot 3-for-9 from deep across Duke’s three exhibition games -- his ball-handling is still somewhat basic, and his passing isn’t great. Both are important skills in today’s NBA, even for forwards. His vision will hold him back, but ball-handling can be practiced, and he’s so impressive otherwise that it’s hard to be too pessimistic about his offense. Still, improvement in any of those categories would be hugely beneficial, and if his long-range shots start dropping consistently, Williamson likely becomes the most unstoppable scorer in the draft.

On the other side of the ball, things aren’t quite as rosy. His athleticism serves him well as both a perimeter defender and big-time shot blocker, but effort and experience levels both present issues. Duke’s recent track record defensively doesn’t suggest a lot of hope for improvement this season, either. That’s not to say Williamson is the next Jahlil Okafor or Marvin Bagley on defense -- he has the necessary tools to be successful and should improve with time. In the short term, however, it’s definitely a concern.

Duke’s crowded roster could be some cause for concern this season as well. R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish are also ball-dominant stars, and there could be some growing pains as the three star freshmen figure out how to play with one another.

All in all, Williamson looks primed to be a star this season and beyond. He could very well be the best player on an absolutely loaded Duke team and should easily be a lottery pick with an outside chance at getting taken first overall. At the least, it seems likely he’ll be competing in the dunk contest someday and carving out a role on a roster as one of the league’s most unique players -- it’s never been easier for unique players than it is in today’s NBA. But with all of his tools and gifts, the sky’s the limit. If everything unfolds correctly and he lives up to his full potential?

NBA Most Valuable Player Zion Williamson has a pretty nice ring to it.

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