Would You Build Around Zion Williamson or Luka Doncic? B/R NBA Staff Decides
A choice between Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson is a perfect representation of the age-old question: apples or oranges? They're both very good for you, just with a different flavor.
Zion Williamson is a generational athlete built to bully and outmaneuver opponents with a seemingly unprecedented combination of agility and skill. Luka Doncic is a generational scorer who can turn any possession into an easy bucket from virtually every spot on the floor.
There could be no wrong answer here. Both are generational talents and future MVP candidates. Each player has kicked open the door to the NBA with first-ballot Hall of Fame-type performances. But if you had to decide, who are you taking, B/R NBA staffers?
The 'Zion Rules,' Coming Soon to a League Near You
My head says Doncic because there's less of an injury history and more certainty about his skill set being sustainable for a long period of time. But my heart says Williamson, who, in less than two months, has become appointment television. He fundamentally alters the game around him, arguably in a way no big man has since Shaquille O'Neal first entered the league in 1992. He's impossible for defenders to stay in front of and even harder to officiate.
He's the kind of player the league may eventually have to change the rules to account for, and I'll take my chances with that guy any day of the week.
The ridiculous numbers he puts up (12 straight 20-point games and three 30-point games in just 16 career outings while shooting 68 percent on shots around the basket) still feel accidental. The common thought that he hasn't learned the game yet isn't fair to him, as he's already demonstrated strong passing instincts and doesn't take bad shots.
But he's still feeling his way into the flow of the team after missing the first half of his rookie season. The conditioning concerns and injury history are real, but he's 19 and, by all accounts, a hard worker who's motivated to get better, so I'm not worried about him failing to get in better shape as he grows into his body.
Luka's long-term upside is more of a sure thing, but I'm rolling the dice that Zion will live up to the hype.
So far, he has.
Luka the Creator
Zion Williamson is pouring in points at a rate almost never seen among rookies, but the answer here is Luka Doncic.
For one thing, Luka, who is just over a year older than Zion, is a vastly superior creator. On top of an assist rate that nearly quadruples Zion's, fewer than 20 percent of Luka's own field goals have been assisted by teammates this season. Nearly 80 percent of Zion's shots have been assisted.
From the moment he entered the NBA, it was clear Luka could operate as the unquestioned offensive hub of a good team. In Year 2, he's already engineering an attack scoring more points per 100 possessions than any other in NBA history. His size (6'7") and vision at the point guard spot are reminiscent of Magic Johnson, but he also has a desire and ability to generate plenty of his own points.
Luka's defensive ceiling is likely a bit lower than Zion's, but he more than makes up for it on the offensive end. Additionally, there's at least a hint of worry regarding Zion's long-term health.
During his 44-game absence at the start of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans were reportedly looking to "re-teach him how to walk and run differently" in an effort to prevent future wear and tear. Talk of Zion being out of shape may be a bit off base, but we've never seen someone with his combination of size and explosiveness. When he's as high off the ground as he gets, it's natural to worry about the landings.
Zion Is Reversing the Course of History
Midway through his second season, Doncic is compiling enough points, rebounds and assists to surpass every first- or second-year player outside of Oscar Robertson. But I'm swinging for the stars and selecting the 19-year-old phenom with unbelievable size and inconceivable athleticism.
Zion is bringing back bully-ball in a big way, averaging more post-ups than all but six players. Rather than kick every shot to the perimeter, he shoots from within five feet 13.8 times per game, far above that of his nearest competitor (Giannis Antetokounmpo at 11.0). He's collecting points and rebounds at a rate unmatched by any rookie ever. Regardless of experience, those numbers have been matched only by Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley and Kevin McHale.
Zion is unlike anything we've ever seen, and his game has so much room to grow.
While his handle and recognition are lacking, he's shown touch and vision as a passer. With an improved handle, he could become a full-court wrecking ball akin to LeBron. He's already a top-20 player by raw plus/minus (plus-7.6), which is well above Doncic (plus-6.1). And once he unlocks his defensive awareness and marries it to his ability to defend every position, the rest of the NBA is in trouble.
A Nightly Triple-Double Threat
Zion Williamson is massive and athletic, he's already dropping 35-point games against LeBron James, and he has all the tools on and off the court to be the face of a franchise. That being said, I'm still building my NBA team around Luka Doncic if given the choice.
No offense to Williamson, but Doncic is already carrying the Dallas Mavericks to the Western Conference playoffs as a sophomore with a lackluster supporting cast. He's a nightly triple-double threat, impacting the game with his passing, vision, ball-handling and offensive versatility far more than Williamson can.
Doncic can play four different positions at 6'7", shows a natural calmness and leadership ability that can't be taught and is guiding the Mavs to an offensive rating of 118.3 when he's in the game. While Williamson is dominating at the rim and is athletic enough to play on the ball, he isn't an outside shooting threat yet and will never have a step-back three as pretty or effective as Doncic's.
There's also a huge cloud hovering over Williamson's head after back-to-back injury-shortened seasons, first at Duke and now with the New Orleans Pelicans. Williamson still has to find the perfect weight for his frame, while Doncic is already thriving with a body that looks like it still hasn't discovered a weight room.
In a wing-dominated league in which players with size who can score and create for others are perhaps the most difficult to obtain, I'm building a franchise around Doncic.
Position Matters, and so Does Longevity
Given how basketball is played in today's NBA, it is almost a must to have a dominant guard or wing player if you want a real chance to win a championship. With that in mind, I would build around Luka Doncic.
In his second season, Doncic is already a top-10 player.
He is one of the leading pick-and-roll guards in the NBA. He has made a leap by improving his ability to knock down floaters in the lane. With his court vision and IQ, he makes everyone on the Dallas Mavericks a threat. Teams are already forced to choose between playing him straight up and risking him picking them apart if they send double teams.
Doncic also committed himself to be in better condition after finishing his first season.
Even with all the skills he brings, there is still room to grow. He is only shooting 31.5 percent from three, but that is bound to improve given his form.
There is no arguing Zion Williamson's potential, but there will always be concerns about his weight and injury risk. His game is built on raw athleticism and explosiveness, which gets worn down over time. Just look at the career arcs of players like Blake Griffin and Amar'e Stoudemire, who came into the league as explosive athletes in their own right.
Doncic's game and style of play make it more likely that he'll be able to play at a high level for much longer.
Durability Is the Deciding Factor
How about both? It's an impossible question because both players are absolutely elite. Not just as prospects—they are both already close to the "best player in the league" discussion.
Doncic and Williamson will need some time to try catching their "elders" like Giannis Antetokounmpo (25 years old) and LeBron James (35), but both the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans have their franchise players for the next decade.
Doncic is an offense in and of himself. He has the size (6'7"), creativity and elite court vision to carry a lottery team into the playoffs. His ability to orchestrate the pick-and-roll is among the best in the league. He already deserves MVP consideration, and while it's not his to win this year (Antetokounmpo and James have their respective teams atop each conference), it's a matter of time before he becomes a front-runner.
But Williamson (still just 19 years old) has such a dominant physical presence. It's as if Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley were fused together in a mad scientist's lab. He's just too powerful to overlook. And it's not just strength. Williamson is skilled and surprisingly nimble.
He doesn't come into the league with the same level of experience as Doncic, who played overseas before he joined the NBA, but give him a chance to catch up.
Williamson may have the greater upside. But if there's a deciding factor, it's durability. Can he withstand the rigors of the NBA while carrying nearly 300 pounds on a 6'6" frame?
It's probably a mistake, but the choice is Doncic by the slimmest of margins.
Luka Doncic Already at an MVP Level
There's no wrong answer here, but the right(er) answer is Luka.
Zion has been as good as advertised through his first 16 games. His never-before-seen combination of explosiveness, quickness, strength and size are truly a marvel. He has been a load around the rim, gobbling up his few misses and turning them into second-chance points. He has singlehandedly made the Pelicans must-watch TV.
If there's a challenge in evaluating Williamson's greatness, it's that you can't (yet) give him the ball and ask him to create a great look for himself or someone else on the Pelicans. He's more of a play finisher than a play starter. That is most certainly not a knock—every team could use that kind of offensive weapon.
But Doncic is already serving as a play starter on every possession.
Doncic, just in his second season, is playing at an MVP level. He can score at every level, he's one of the best passers in the league, and he's an automatic mismatch in a spread pick-and-roll system. He is the engine behind the Mavericks' historically potent offense. He has no offensive flaws. And it doesn't hurt that he has the playing style that could allow him to spend 20 years in the league. We are looking ahead, after all.
It's too early into his career to know what Williamson will become. The legendary start truly is only the beginning. He represents raw, untapped potential that could manifest in one of the highest peaks of all time.
But if you're building a team today, Doncic is the foundation for an already great squad and has to be the choice for who I would build around.
No Solution for Stopping Prime Zion
Teams may have answers for Luka Doncic, or at least more basic game plans to slow him down. Using longer wings to defend him is a start. There won't be a solution for stopping Zion Williamson if he continues to develop into his 20s.
Individual and team defenses just can't move with him. He's averaging 24.2 points on 58.8 percent shooting during his first real NBA stretch—and that's without a great deal of skill or polish.
He's similar to Giannis Antetokounmpo in that they both entered the league so far out of the box physically. But it took Giannis four seasons to average 20-plus points. Williamson's offensive effectiveness at baseline is unlike any we've seen.
And since high school, he's always had a reputation for being humble and hardworking. His development at both ends is worth betting on.
Doncic will win an MVP at some point. But opponents will be able to create defensive strategies to crowd his space or make him give the ball up. Williamson doesn't need the ball in his hands much to rack up the 9.2 field goals he's making per game. His potential trajectory expands my imagination the furthest it can go when trying to picture the type of force he'll be in his prime.
Doncic Will Age More Gracefully, Giving Him Razor-Thin Edge
This question might as well be sponsored by Reese's since there's no wrong way to answer it.
Take Luka Doncic, and you've landed a 6'7", 230-pound swingman who's already an elite scorer and distributor. Add in his glass-cleaning and ability to thrive in the game's biggest moments, and you essentially have a complete player—who turned 21 last month.
Opt for Zion Williamson, though, and you have a physics-defying, turbo-charged 285-pound athlete who's already flashed an advanced feel for the game. He's a backdoor lob threat at any time, he can turn almost any missed shot into a putback poster and he'll keep the ball flowing on offense. He's 19 years old and already in the 81st percentile on post-ups, 72nd percentile as a pick-and-roll screener and 67th percentile in transition.
But you already knew both of these players were great, right?
Since I'm guessing you didn't come here to watch me flip a coin, let's nitpick our way to a selection.
Doncic isn't an elite athlete, and while he's worked around that on offense, it could keep him from handling the toughest defensive assignments. Williamson isn't much of a shooter (he has one triple since his four-splash debut, and he's only shooting 64.2 percent from the line), and if we're choosing him as a building block, we'll have to ponder what happens when Father Time eventually cuts into his explosiveness.
Doncic's weaknesses are easier to work around, and barring injury, his game could age as gracefully as possible. He's the preferred centerpiece in my book, but the margin is razor-thin.
An Easy Decision—for Now
It is a testament to Zion Williamson's dominance that this question doesn't come across as ridiculous fewer than 20 games into his NBA tenure. We haven't seen someone who can have a superstar impact while playing so cleanly within the flow of the offense since before Anthony Davis was a face-up weapon, and opponents never quite ricocheted off him like they do Zion.
Still, this is a relatively easy decision, at least for the time being: Luka Doncic is the better cornerstone.
Primary playmakers wield more influence over the game. Zion looks like someone who will eventually run some pick-and-rolls once he gets his handle under control, but he's never going to have the same table-setting responsibility.
Nor, for that matter, does he ever figure to be the same from-scratch shot-maker. So much of his value is rooted in playing off others, bulldozing enemies in transition and converting putbacks, but Doncic profiles as the more valuable half-court option—the guy who can sprinkle in step-back threes and floaters and is more difficult to keep in check during crunch time.
Zion needs to develop into an All-NBAish defensive anchor if he's ever going to catch Doncic. He could get there. His off-ball positioning will improve with time, and he has the physical tools to get by at both the 4 and the 5.
Even then, though, defaulting to the player who always projects to do more on offense makes the most sense. Doncic is that guy until—or unless—Zion proves he's not.