Like any basketball freak with a smartphone, I have watched every single Zion Williamson rim-rattling dunk, mind-bending tomahawk, and imperceptible vertical leap since he was a high school junior and the star of every mixtape and Overtime video on the planet. The dude was impossible to turn away from. A 285-pound, 18-year-old kid who was bouncy? He looked like a linebacker celebrating a sack every time he cocked back and murdered some poor opponent on a fast break. His future looked to be LeBron-esque, and the NBA had its next franchise superstar. Add that swagger, that post-dunk waddle… the smile. The kid was destined for the All-Star Game by his second season.
Now I’m not convinced Zion Williamson is going to last more than eight years in the league.
Why Zion’s Future Isn’t as Bright as We Think
Okay, slow down. I know, I know. Zion is a beast on the court. A once-in-a-generation physical specimen. He’s averaging 23 points per game and nearly 8 rebounds. When he dunks, it’s a highlight that we see 40 times and announcers shout out ridiculous things like, “Zion with the HAMMER!” But my issue is not with Zion getting his stat line or highlight plays every night. It’s the fact that he is way less of a complete player than any of us expected him to be. To top that off, he is currently on a team that is 5-10 that had NBA experts thinking they were a possible Eastern Conference finalist at the beginning of the season.
LeBron’s first season in Cleveland wasn’t pretty for the Cavs, but the dude had teammates like Carlos Boozer and Zydrunas What–the–hell–was–his–name-as. However, lack of support or not, when LeBron touched the ball, you knew something special was going to happen. From the very first moment that he stepped onto the court, you just KNEW that LeBron James had the killer instinct that has put him in the G.O.A.T. conversation for his career. Not too many players have that “killer” instinct. The desire to win at all costs and to make everybody around them play better and compete harder. Kevin Durant has it. Steph Curry has it. Jimmy Butler proved that he has it in “The Bubble” last year. Michael Jordan, of course, was the blueprint for it. Zion Williamson does not have it.
A One-Dimensional Game
We all get the dunks. We love the dunks. And we love the put-back jams, the breakaways, and the bully ball… But let us look now at the other areas of Zion’s game that are blatantly struggling. For one, his outside shooting. Zion has scored 72 percent of his baskets inside three feet of the rim this season. 96 percent came within 10 feet. 96 PERCENT? Those aren’t even Manute Bol numbers – as Manute Bol could shoot the three! Zion can thunder dunk on guys like Chimezie Metu in cringeworthy snapshots that will soon become best-selling posters and Fatheads. But if he is truly going to reach his potential as a transcendental superstar in the NBA, the guy needs to extend his game. Like, WAY beyond 10 feet.
When Zion gets the ball outside of the three-point line, you can always count on him attacking. It’s effective when he gets to the rim, but his TURNOVERS are far outpacing his assists. Ball-handling could be the issue, or you can blame the Pelicans’ poor three-point shooting. But if Zion needs to be a deep threat or else he’s just another inside force that would have been a perennial All-Star in the ‘90s NBA. In today’s long-distance game, he’s simply a fun inside guy to watch on TV once in a while. (For the record – I’m not claiming that Zion won’t make All-Star teams – especially if the fans vote counted the way it does. After all, as they say in baseball, “Chicks dig the long ball.” In the NBA, it’s “the dunk.”)
And then we should look at Zion’s atrocious perimeter defense. The NBA has become a screen-and-switch league. And more often than not, a guy like Zion is going to get stuck guarding a faster, more agile player. Zion’s lateral movement and close-outs are just not there. He lacks the speed and ability to get to players who get crafty – and don’t rely on their size and strength for open shots. Inside, Zion rarely lets people by him (especially with Steven Adams backing him up). But teams have been recognizing this about New Orleans lately, so they step out and shoot.
One major issue, not only for Zion but for his teammate Brandon Ingram as well, is that they don’t seem to have the two-way game that other prominent duos in the league have. LeBron and AD, Kawhi and Paul George, and Giannis and Middleton are ALL excellent defenders as well as offensive showstoppers. Zion and Ingram just don’t have that side of the game down yet. Once they do, it will lead to more transition baskets, but it’s gonna take a lot more to convince them that defense is one of the keys to becoming legends in the league.
At least pretend like you care, Zion
Killer instinct, turnovers, and poor outside shooting aside, the other main concern with Zion Williamson is his injury-prone nature. One prominent sports physician has already declared that “Zion’s best years are behind him.” Now, I don’t know about that. I do think that age 20 is way too young to be counting out a player’s potential, but the conversations happen all the time. Zion spent a year at Duke, marred by the blown-out-shoe knee sprain that caused even Mike Krzyzewski’s matted-down hair to stand up on end, and then began his rookie year with a partially torn meniscus that caused him to miss the first three months of the NBA season. Then the press uncovered a lingering high school knee injury that made you scratch your head and think, THREE injuries in three years? Not a good sign.
Last season, when Zion finally made his NBA debut he was Must-See TV, pouring in 17 straight points and showing what he was capable of but played limited minutes. Limited minutes. At 19-years-old? When I was 19, the only thing I limited myself to was two Big Macs when I was stoned rather than three.
Where Are the Wins?
If Zion was the player we were all hoping he would be, the Pelicans would have 11 victories right now instead of wallowing in the cellar of the Eastern Conference. They lost to the only team worse than they are last weekend – the Timberwolves. Lonzo Ball is already being tossed around as mid-season trade bait and Brandon Ingram, who is as fun of a player to watch as Zion is, also seems to be content getting his points and long-distance 3s and then sitting back on defense, only to get scored on a few seconds later. Stan Van Gundy is an excellent coach. So, what is going on in New Orleans? This team has made the cover of Slam Magazine – but they will not make the playoffs. If Zion Williamson was a more determined and well-rounded player, this could be a different story.
Gazing into the Crystal Ball
I truly hope that Zion Williamson becomes the player we know he can be – but my prediction is that he will spend his first few years on the Pelicans and be traded to a super team for multiple draft picks where he will play limited minutes in a deep playoff run. His career could end early if the injuries continue. But if he decides he wants to put all of his efforts into improving the areas of his game that are currently lacking, he could have a few seasons where he is one of the league’s Top Ten players. For now, let him posterize, fill the Overtime app highlight reels, and cash those Gatorade and Air Jordan shoe endorsement checks until he is ready to step up and become Zion 2.0.
Until then, I’m going to keep putting money on the Pelicans to fall short whenever they play teams with great outside shooters. Of course, there is a chance that someday Zion will become one of those outside guys. I mean hey, it worked for Blake Griffin in his later years… (Griffin was a dunk-machine early who was forced to extend his game as his injury-prone career wore on). Come to think of it, Blake Griffin and Zion have a lot in common. Blake, though he was a world-class athlete who thrived in the bright lights of Los Angeles only to end up wallowing in Detroit. If Zion doesn’t prove that he is a championship-caliber player within a few years in the Big Easy, he may end up in a place like Detroit as well, wondering what could have been – while dunking all over guys like Chimezie Metu.
Hey, I guess it sells posters…