How Zion Williamson Fits with NBA's Worst Teams

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterFebruary 12, 2019

How Zion Williamson Fits with NBA's Worst Teams

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    NBA teams in tank mode have to be thinking about Duke's Zion Williamson and his potential to improve their outlook over the next decade. 

    He's the heavy favorite to go No. 1 in the 2019 NBA draft, and he's a fit for most franchises that have fallen outside of the playoff hunt. 

    Here, we'll examine how he'd mesh with the lottery teams with the best odds to land him.

    Only teams with at least a 5 percent chance to win the lottery (based on the NBA standings heading into Monday, Feb. 11) are included. 

New York Knicks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Current record: 10-46, 14.0 percent chance at No. 1


    Projected 2019-20 cornerstones/lineup

    Guards: Dennis Smith Jr., Allonzo Trier, Frank Ntilikina

    Wings: Kevin Knox, Damyean Dotson

    Bigs: Zion Williamson, Mitchell Robinson


    If the New York Knicks win the lottery, Williamson won't necessarily be the first player they'll think about. Anthony Davis could suddenly become their new target since they'd have enough to make a competitive offer, including the No. 1 overall pick plus any combination of Knox, Smith Jr., Robinson, Trier and future picks (they received two first-rounders from the Mavericks). 

    But the Knicks would be wise to keep the No. 1 overall selection and build around player development and the cap space they created from trading Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. If they relinquished the rights to all of their free agents and waived Trier and Dotson, the Knicks could select Williamson and still have enough cap room to sign two max free agents. 

    Regardless of whether president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry can land a star or two this summer, the Knicks roster will look radically different from draft night to mid-July. We can only analyze how Williamson works with Knox, Smith and Robinson—the franchise's current priorities—plus the hypothetical lineup that could form if the Knicks are successful in free agency. 

    With the current group, athleticism would be an obvious identity. Williamson, Robinson and Smith possess the highest levels of explosiveness for their positions. Head coach David Fizdale should emphasize tempo and get the Knicks to run more than the 100.3 possessions (No. 16 leaguewide) they're currently averaging per game.

    A Williamson-Robinson frontcourt would have exciting defensive upside, as both are high-energy bigs who can cover an extreme amount of ground and airspace. However, the Knicks would need to add shooters around that duo, particularly if Smith was still the starting point guard. 

    That's among what makes Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant such appealing free agents to pursue.

    The offense won't run through Williamson if New York can add one or two star veterans. That should be viewed a positive for the projected No. 1 pick, who won't turn 19 until July. It's scary to picture Williamson as a secondary or third option, playing off one or two of the NBA's elite shot-creators and shot-makers.

    Even if Mills and Perry strike out, Williamson will be considered one of the top prospects (along with Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum) under 21 to build around.

Phoenix Suns

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Current record: 11-47, 14.0 percent chance at No. 1


    Projected 2019-20 cornerstones/lineup

    Guards: Devin Booker, Tyler Johnson

    Wings: Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, TJ Warren

    Bigs: Zion Williamson, Deandre Ayton


    The Phoenix Suns front office should already be salivating at the idea of pairing Ayton with Williamson. 

    Duke's freshman would give the franchise a third potential star to help move the needle, since the Suns currently rank 28th and 29th in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively.

    Williamson, who's racking up 2.2 steals and 2.0 blocks per game, plays at another energy level compared to Ayton. Phoenix would benefit from his defensive playmaking, particularly around the basket, as well as his ability to switch and guard the perimeter. 

    Williamson would also give Phoenix's frontcourt a different element of fast-break offense and ball-handling. The Duke big man ranks in the 89th percentile in transition, and he's converted 11 of his 13 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler into baskets.

    The Suns will still need to find a point guard to help unlock the roster's upside. They're also last in the NBA in three-point percentage, and a lineup featuring Williamson would need shooters.

    Adding Williamson would require follow-up moves to maximize the team's talent, but he's the Suns' best chance of expediting their rebuild and returning to relevance. Last year's additions of Ayton and Bridges won't be enough on their own.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Current record: 12-45, 14.0 percent chance at No. 1


    Projected 2019-20 cornerstones/lineup

    Guards: Collin Sexton

    Wings: Cedi Osman

    Bigs: Zion Williamson, Kevin Love, Ante Zizic


    The Cleveland Cavaliers have started their inevitable rebuild, selling off veterans like Kyle Korver and Rodney Hood for future draft picks. Their only hope for a quicker turnaround will be winning the lottery and drafting Williamson, who'd give them a new star to build around as well as a strong fit alongside a healthy Kevin Love.

    After the lottery, the question would then become whether the Cavaliers keep Love, who's 30 years old and signed through 2022-23. Given the new direction of the team following LeBron James' departure, it would make sense to shop Love for young players and draft picks, although finding the right deal could be challenging with roughly $120.4 million left on his contract.

    But between Love's shooting and scoring skill and Williamson's superior speed/explosiveness and defensive playmaking, the two fit well together on paper.

    The next step for Cleveland would be strengthening its backcourt, specifically finding a point guard who can help maximize Williamson's unique abilities. That isn't Sexton, who averages only 2.8 assists to 2.3 turnovers and has the team's second-highest usage rate behind Jordan Clarkson.

Chicago Bulls

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Current record: 13-44, 12.5 percent chance at No. 1

    Projected 2019-20 cornerstones/lineup

    Guards: Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn

    Wings: Otto Porter Jr.

    Bigs: Zion Williamson, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr.


    While the Chicago Bulls aren't in position to pass on talent for needs, they'd have something to think about with the draft's first pick that other tanking teams won't: Can Williamson, Markkanen and Carter play together?

    Williamson would immediately become the team's top prospect, so Chicago needs to draft him regardless. The next question would be whether to explore dealing Markkenen or Carter, promising young players Chicago selected over the past two years. 

    It's a similar situation to what the Orlando Magic faced last year, when they took center Mohamed Bamba as the best player available despite already having Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac in their frontcourt. Just like the Magic did, the Bulls would presumably overlook fit and set the logjam aside as an issue to worry about later.

    At this stage, the Bulls should just be looking to stockpile assets and sort them out over time. Adding Williamson may mean asking Carter to come off the bench, which would require head coach Jim Boylen to stagger his bigs.

    Assuming the Bulls don't panic and keep their young players, they could experiment with Williamson at the 5, particularly when Markkenen is in the game stretching the floor as a power forward. Even though he's listed at 6'7", Williamson compensates with his 285-pound frame, athleticism and effort level, which should be enough for him to play stretches as a small-ball 5.

    He'd help the Bulls play faster (No. 22 in pace). He also ranks in the 99th percentile in half-court offense (points per possession) and is shooting 75.1 percent from inside the arc, while the Bulls rank last in the league in offensive efficiency

    A Dunn- and LaVine-initiated offense would benefit greatly from Williamson's knack for creating easy-basket opportunities.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Current record: 18-38, 10.5 percent chance at No. 1

    Projected 2019-20 cornerstones/lineup

    Guards: Trae Young

    Wings: Kevin Huerter, Taurean Prince, DeAndre' Bembry

    Bigs: Zion Williamson, John Collins, Omari Spellman


    The Atlanta Hawks are already trending in the right direction, but a lucky lottery night could drastically change the team's ceiling over the coming years.

    Between Young, Huerter and Collins, Atlanta's core is balanced with playmaking, shooting and inside scoring. Williamson's star potential could elevate it to another level.

    Few opponents would be able to match up with the explosiveness of a Williamson-Collins duo up front. Collins' development as a shooter (35-of-99 from deep) also bodes well for their potential to play together, although Williamson is making strides himself, having hit a three in nine of Duke's last 13 games. 

    The most exciting aspect of a Williamson-to-Atlanta scenario would revolve around his fit with Young, who's tied for seventh in the league in assists and has the Hawks ranked No. 1 in pace. Williamson would benefit from an uptempo passing point guard like Young to set the table.

    With Williamson still 18 and Young, Collins and Huerter each under 21, the Hawks would have a strong young nucleus. They also have the Dallas Mavericks' top-five-protected pick this year and plenty of future cap room once Kent Bazemore (2019-20 player option) and Miles Plumlee's contracts are up in the summer of 2020.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Current record: 23-34, 9.0 percent chance at No. 1

    Projected 2019-20 cornerstones/lineup

    Guards: Mike Conley

    Wings: Kyle Anderson, Dillon Brooks

    Bigs: Zion Williamson, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas 


    Trading Marc Gasol signified the start of a Memphis Grizzlies rebuild that they'll hope to expedite by winning the lottery. Among all of the potential frontcourt pairings for Williamson among struggling teams, none would be more intriguing than one with Jackson.

    It wouldn't matter who played the 4 or 5. Given their versatility, they'd alternate based on the Grizzlies' opponent. Their defensive upside together jumps out due to their switchability and playmaking at the rim.

    Offensively, Jackson's ability to shoot and stretch the floor would benefit Williamson, who'd bring more finishing firepower and rebounding muscle inside. 

    Memphis would then need to decide what to do with the 31-year-old Conley, as it would otherwise be building around a pair of teenage bigs. Do the Grizzlies keep him to help develop Jackson and Williamson, assuming they can't get a top draft pick or prospect back via trade?

    It's a pickle they'll worry about later. In the meantime, the Grizzlies could celebrate arguably the league's most promising young tandem of bigs outside of Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris in Philadelphia.

Washington Wizards

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    Will Newton/Getty Images

    Current record: 24-33, 7.5 percent chance at No. 1

    Projected 2019-20 lineup/cornerstones

    Guards: John Wall (injured), Bradley Beal, Tomas Satoransky

    Wings: Troy Brown Jr.

    Bigs: Zion Williamson, Bobby Portis (RFA), Thomas Bryant (RFA)


    Zion Williamson represents the Washington Wizards' only hope for a quick turnaround after Wall's crushing Achilles injury and the subsequent Porter trade. 

    The Wizards seem adamant about building around Beal moving forward. But assuming they don't pick up the $20 million team option for newly acquired forward Jabari Parker, Ian Mahinmi is the lone Washington big man under contract next season.

    Williamson would be especially ideal for the Wizards given his upside and position. And with Wall looking untradable as he heads into the first year of his his four-year supermax contract, acquiring a star on a rookie deal would be a dream.

    While Washington's offense would still run through Beal, Williamson would receive the right amount of touches as a secondary option who's learning new ways to create his own shot. In terms of role allocation, it may look similar to how Booker and Ayton are operating this year in Phoenix.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Current record: 25-32, 5.3 percent chance at No. 1

    Projected 2019-20 cornerstones/lineup

    Guards: Jrue Holiday

    Wings: N/A

    Bigs: Zion Williamson


    The New Orleans Pelicans' 2019-20 starting lineup will be a mystery until they trade Anthony Davis this offseason. But bouncing back from Davis' trade request would become much easier if they won the No. 1 pick.

    Even if the Pelicans don't get lucky on lottery night, they're still likely to have conversations with the team that does win the right to draft Williamson. Depending on how the Pelicans value Williamson, they may be rooting for the Knicks to land the No. 1 pick since Davis would reportedly re-sign in New York, which could help grease the wheels on a deal.

    The Pelicans would then build around a Williamson-Holiday foundation, plus any other picks or prospects they acquire in a deal for Davis.

    Winning the lottery outright remains the No. 1 goal, as New Orleans could then feel more comfortable making a deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pelicans could field a lineup consisting of Williamson, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Holiday, assuming the Lakers' deadline offer would still be on the table.

Orlando Magic

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    Gary Bassing/Getty Images

    Current record: 25-32, 5.2 percent chance at No. 1


    Projected 2019-20 cornerstones/lineup

    Guards: Markelle Fultz

    Wings: Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon

    Bigs: Zion Williamson, Jonathan Isaac, Mohamed Bamba, Nikola Vucevic (UFA)


    Winning the lottery may make it easier for the Orlando Magic to let Vucevic walk in free agency, particularly since he figures to command a monster deal and the team is still losing with him playing at an All-Star level. But Williamson and Vucevic could also form a tough one-two punch.

    Orlando could try to re-sign Vucevic and shop Gordon in hopes of landing a high draft pick or young guard or wing. Gordon's development has seemingly plateaued, and Williamson could replace his athleticism and versatility. 

    Either way, if the Magic were to win the lottery, they'd have to make a follow-up trade to accommodate Williamson. They may even want to make multiple moves to create a more balanced roster. Isaac or Bamba could become expendable, and Orlando still has serious needs at guard and wing. 

    Trading for Fultz was a worthwhile gamble, but he's far from showing he's ready to make an impact. Orlando's roster needs both reshuffling and talent.

    Williamson would give them the latter, and he alone is enough to change the direction of the ship. It would then be up to management to make the necessary transactions to build a cohesive lineup around him.

    Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports, Basketball Reference and