Why Zion Williamson Could Be the Best No. 1 NBA Draft Pick in a Decade

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterJanuary 26, 2019

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 19: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils moves the ball against the Virginia Cavaliers in the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 19, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Lance King/Getty Images

Duke's Zion Williamson is the 2019 NBA draft's heavy favorite to go No. 1, and he possesses an unmatched mix of power, quickness and explosion. But even the highest level of athleticism can only carry a player so far.

What about his skill package and degree of execution through 18 games?

There hasn't been a scout Bleacher Report spoke to who didn't have him as the clear-cut No. 1 prospect. That wasn't always the case, as most gave his teammate RJ Barrett that title back in October. Averaging 21.7 points, Williamson has separated from the projected pack by strengthening his image as more than a dunker.

He's already answered questions about how he fits once the game slows down, as he ranks as one of the nation's elite half-court scorers playing both frontcourt positions for Duke. He even compares favorably to recent No. 1 draft picks such as Anthony Davis, 

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Karl-Anthony Towns and Ben Simmons.

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Now he's putting together arguably the most impressive NCAA season of any recent No. 1 pick. Five hundred minutes into his college career, it's worth examining how well the 285-pounder is generating offense in other ways compared to recent No. 1 overall picks during their final seasons of college before the draft.

Note: We included Joel Embiid as well, given his position and success in the same time period. Kyrie Irving was left out after only playing 11 total college games.

Note 2: Synergy Sports uses points per possession to measure each prospect's production and efficiency. It focuses on half-court play, something scouts will be looking at closer with Williamson given how convincing he's always looked in transition.


More Than a Fast-Break Weapon (half-court PPP)

Williamson: 1.17 PPP

Anthony Davis: 1.16 PPP

Deandre Ayton: 1.15 PPP

Blake Griffin: 1.05 PPP

Karl-Antony Towns: 1.04 PPP

Anthony Bennett: 1.03 PPP

Joel Embiid: 1.02 PPP

Ben Simmons: 0.94 PPP

Markelle Fultz: 0.93 PPP

Andrew Wiggins: 0.91 PPP

John Wall: 0.79 PPP

In half-court production and efficiency, Williamson is having the best season among recent No. 1 bigs (including point-forward Simmons and No. 3 pick Embiid).

While his physical gifts fuel much of his scoring, he's creating opportunities and making shots with flashes of various skills.

The post isn't Williamson's office the way it was and still is for Towns (No. 2 in NBA post-up attempts), Embiid (No. 3), Griffin (No. 5), Davis (No. 6) and Ayton (No. 11). Unlike with those bigs, it's rare to see Williamson showcase any traditional hooks, fallaways or elbow rise-and-fire jumpers.

However, he hasn't had difficulty scoring from back-to-the-basket positions, having converted 13 of 18 attempts. Williamson goes about getting buckets differently, often turning over a shoulder and separating by elevating/exploding through and above his defender toward the basket.

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press


Low-Usage, Super-Efficient Post Force 

Williamson: 1.22 PPP, 2.3 possessions/per 40 minutes

Ayton: 1.05 PPP, 5.9 possessions/per 40 minutes

Griffin: 0.95 PPP, 10.3 possessions/per 40 minutes

Embiid: 0.95 PPP, 9.0 possessions/per 40 minutes

Towns: 0.92 PPP, 7.4 possessions/per 40 minutes

Simmons: 1.03 PPP, 4.2 possessions/per 40 minutes

Bennett: 0.89 PPP, 5.6 possessions/per 40 minutes

Davis: 0.85 PPP, 2.0 possessions/per 40 minutes 

Wiggins: 14 possessions

Fultz: 11 possessions

Wall: 11 possessions

Most of his post-ups end with him finishing closer to the rim, as opposed to fading away or shooting a straight up-and-down contested jump shot.

Scouts will have to ask whether he'll still create the same amount of separation against NBA bigs since he lacks positional height at 6'7". However, the force behind Williamson's strength and explosion seems to help compensate for the inch or two. And it seems highly unlikely teams overthink his unorthodox measurements relating to his inside-scoring potential.

Meanwhile, it's roughly halfway through the season, and Williamson has 30 isolation possessions (1.20 PPP) and 16 pick-and-roll ball-handling possessions (1.20 PPP).

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Top Bigs Can't Match His Creativity (isolation and pick-and-roll ball-handling)

Williamson: 1.20 PPP, 46 combined possessions

Fultz: 0.95 PPP, 222 combined possessions

Ayton: 0.941 (all ISO), 34 possessions

Davis: 0.90 (all ISO), 31 possessions

Simmons: 0.87 PPP, 105 combined possessions

Griffin: 0.85 PPP (all ISO), 54 possessions

Wiggins: 0.82 PPP, 161 combined possessions

Wall: 0.72 PPP, 168 combined possessions

Bennett: 20 possessions (8-of-16 ISO)

Towns: 6 possessions

Embiid: 2 possessions

Together, isolation and pick-and-roll ball-handling account for 15.2 percent of Williamson's offense. He's been highly effective out of both situations, mostly thanks to a combination of quick crossovers and inside-out dribbles, plus the ability to launch himself off drives and adjust midair with coordinated maneuvers to create better finishing angles near the rim.

Williamson isn't a traditional isolation or pick-and-roll scorer, but few bigs are. He's proved to be a rare threat handling the ball behind the arc, even when the defense knows it's almost a certainty his goal is to get downhill and into the lane.

Shooting touch and range remain the most glaring question marks on Williamson's scouting report. He's still shown limited shot-making ability with 10 three-pointers. Davis, Simmons, Griffin, Embiid and Towns made 10 threes combined in their final college seasons.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press


Flashing Shooting Potential

Fultz: 3.9 jumpers per 40 (40.2 percent)

Wiggins: 2.3 jumpers per 40 (34.2 percent)

Bennett: 2.0 jumpers per 40 (39.0 percent)

Wall: 1.8 jumpers per 40 (33.0 percent)

Ayton: 1.3 jumpers per 40 (37.5 percent)

Williamson: 0.96 jumpers per 40 (28.9 percent)

Davis: 0.68 jumpers per 40 (34.3 percent)

Simmons: 0.50 jumpers per 40 (31.1 percent)

Griffin: 0.47 jumpers per 40 (50.0 percent)

Embiid: 0.42 jumpers per 40 (63.6 percent)

Towns: 0.39 jumpers per 40 (28.6 percent)

Converting 28.9 percent of his jump shots and 67.5 percent of his free throws, Williamson is far from a shooter, and the eye test suggests even those made threes could be fluky. Some of his misses have been way short or off.

But compared to the other bigs outside of Ayton, Williamson is making more jump shots in college. And except for Simmons, we've seen Towns, Embiid, Griffin and Davis at least add mid-range shooting to their repertoires as pros.

Williamson is also receiving more than three times as many spot-up possessions per game as Simmons, Griffin, Towns, Embiid, Ayton and Davis did.

John Bazemore/Associated Press


Developing Spot-Up Threat with Room to Improve

Bennett: 1.30 PPP, 15.0 percent of offense

Fultz: 1.01 PPP, 16.2 percent of offense

Wiggins: 0.96 PPP, 23.7 percent of offense

Wall: 0.96 PPP, 19.8 percent of offense

Williamson: 0.81 PPP, 18.2 percent of offense

Everyone else: Under 6.0 percent of offense

Even though his 0.81 PPP is considered average, he enjoys the perimeter because it involves more space for him to use his quickness and handle to attack the rim with momentum. Williamson is 6-of-13 on drives to the basket off the catch.

His jump shot has been behind his spot-up inefficiency, as he's missed 20 of his 26 attempts.

With bigger rim protectors patrolling the NBA paint, Williamson figures to continue drifting outside as a pro, even if he isn't close to being a reliable shooter. He'll hold enough value standing around the arc with his ability to drive past closeouts or beat defenders off a dribble move.

With a higher assist percentage than college-sophomore Griffin, who's become a plus-NBA passer averaging 4.4 assists for his career, Williamson has developed into a threatening playmaker.

Samantha Baker/Associated Press


Rare Playmaking Big Man

Fultz: 35.5 assist percentage

Wall: 34.8 assist percentage

Simmons: 27.4 assist percentage

Williamson: 17.5 assist percentage

Griffin: 16.3 assist percentage

Towns: 11.6 assist percentage

Embiid: 11.5 assist percentage

Ayton: 10.2 assist percentage

Wiggins: 9.2 assist percentage

Bennett: 8.8 assist percentage

Davis: 7.5 assist percentage

It's easy to picture him mirroring Griffin's NBA success as a passer. Williamson seems unselfish and both capable and eager to flash his setup ability by blowing by and dishing on the move.

Outside of scoring, his defense is another key selling point to the eventual lottery winner hoping to land a complete, two-way franchise player.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press


Defensive Activity Monster (steals plus blocks per 40 minutes)

Davis: 7.5

Embiid: 6.0

Williamson: 5.5

Towns: 5.2

Simmons: 3.2

Fultz: 3.1

Bennett: 2.8

Griffin: 2.7

Wall: 2.6

Wiggins: 2.6

Ayton: 2.6

While steals and blocks don't always indicate plus defense, it's worth noting Williamson's defensive activity.

His 3.7 steal percentage leads the pack, and though his 6.1 block percentage isn't near Davis' 13.7 percent, Embiid's 11.7 percent or Towns' 11.5 percent, Williamson is still blocking 2.6 shots per 40 minutes, mostly playing power forward.

He does tend to gamble, and like most freshmen carrying a heavy scoring load, his defensive effort isn't always 100 percent. But his defensive upside is still a serious plus for his intimidation around the basket and foot speed to slide away from it against wings and forwards.

His defensive stats are considered promising indicators.


Potential Full Package

Williamson has backed up the hype over his tools, bounce and quickness, which alone have been highly functional and effective. He ranks in the 89th percentile in transition, the 89th percentile on offensive rebound putbacks and the 87th percentile on cuts.

He'll immediately enter the league as one of its most destructive athletes, with physical abilities that create a special advantage at both ends, regardless of how refined or polished he becomes.

But it's been the evolution of his skill set that's led to elite numbers, a No. 1 overall projection and even greater optimism surrounding his NBA star potential.


Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports, Basketball Reference  

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