Duke’s Zion Williamson has been the consensus best player in college basketball since he committed to Duke, and for good reason. The 18-year-old possesses a truly rare blend of size and athleticism, along with elite body control that allowed him to dominate the ranks of the NCAA this season.
In 33 games, he averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game, while shooting an impressive 68% from the field. Williamson is the most hyped NBA prospect since LeBron James in 2003, but should he even be the first player taken? Let’s explore the arguments for him not going first overall.
Full disclosure, I believe Williamson is the best player in this class and should be the first pick, but it’s dishonest to say that he’s a can’t-miss prospect with no weaknesses. Now, whether or not these cons are enough to pass on him is up for debate.
Injury possibility (or probability)
Williamson has drawn plenty of comparisons to James, both physically and athletically, but James stands at least 6’8″ and his weight has increased from around 240lbs to about 260lbs now. He has avoided injury for the majority of his career, which is impressive given his playstyle. James’ Body Mass Index is 28.6, while Williamson, who is listed at 6’7″ 285lbs, has a BMI of 31.5. This is a significant difference. James’ vertical jump is reportedly 44″, while Williamson can hit 41″. The repeated force of 280lbs dropping from 41″ in the air on knees is concerning.
Williamson has already suffered a serious injury in college, as he destroyed his Nike sneaker with a grade 1 knee sprain. This isn’t as bad as a torn ligament in the knee, and thankfully Williamson made a full recovery, but it is something to think about. Williamson is already heavier than all NBA players except Boban Marjanovic. However, as this excellent article points out, there isn’t actually a strong correlation between weight + athleticism and serious injury in the NBA.
The bigger concern is not that Williamson puts a ton of force on his knees, but rather how he does it. Players like Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James haven’t had knee issues despite their frames, but the Derrick Roses of the game have, and it’s mostly due to the mechanics of their landing. Teams aren’t going to be able to change Williamson’s play style, nor should they try, but one of the first things Zion’s new team must do is make sure he understands exactly how to land in order to preserve his health.
Lack of floor spacing
In today’s NBA, if you aren’t a center like Deandre Ayton and you don’t have at least a respectable three-point shot, you probably won’t be getting many minutes. Williamson’s game is built around his crazy athleticism and strength close to the basket. He takes high-percentage shots and makes a great deal of them. But his outside shooting has a long way to go. He only took 2.2 three-pointers per game, and hit just 34% of them. His free-throw percentage was also low, at 64%. Williamson must develop a somewhat reliable catch-and-shoot triple, because when he doesn’t have the ball, teams are going to play off him so he doesn’t have an easy drive to the basket. If he can’t punish teams for leaving him open, he’ll become a one-dimensional player. Forwards have to be able to beat defenders off the dribble, and if Williamson can’t hit a pull-up jumper, the solution to guarding him becomes simple; have his defender play off, and rotate big man help once Williamson drives to the hoop.
Lack of position fit
Williamson has the weight of a classic center but the height of a guard. He’s such a unique player from a physical standpoint, yet that’s also a disadvantage. Because of physics, he doesn’t have the lateral quickness needed to defend guards, and doesn’t have the height to match up with centers. He will play a hybrid forward role, but even then he’s a bit short. Perhaps he will continue to grow, but right now he’s a tweener.
That doesn’t matter so much anymore as the NBA moves toward a positionless game, but it is still nice to be able to pigeonhole players into certain positions every once in a while. Is there a role for a more athletic Charles Barkley in today’s game? Probably, but Zion needs to evolve his skillset and probably lose some weight at some point early on. Whatever position he ends up playing primarily, he will be the only one of his kind.
So there are some concerns with Zion Williamson, and depending on who wins the first overall pick, he could end up falling to pick #2. The Phoenix Suns, for example, reportedly prefer Murray State point guard Ja Morant to Williamson. Usually NBA teams draft talent over fit, but this could be a rare time where that is not the case. We’ll just have to wait and see, but one thing is for sure; Zion Williamson is the best player in this class, even if there are reasons to pass on him.