Zion Williamson Really Could Be the Next Shaquille O'Neal or Charles Barkley

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IApril 6, 2020

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) drives to the basket in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat in New Orleans, Friday, March 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)
Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

It took Zion Williamson 19 games to explode on to the NBA scene. His play has resurrected memories of Shaquille O'Neal's and Charles Barkley's dominance. He still has a way to go to catch those Hall of Famers, but he is off to a great start. 

Williamson's debut was delayed by a torn right lateral meniscus. But when he got on the court, he did not disappoint, becoming must-watch TV. He's been a force on the offensive end, averaging 23.6 points in just 29.7 minutes a game while dropping 2.2 assists on a nightly basis. 

It is a small sample size, but there are many aspects of Williamson's game that resemble O'Neal's and Barkley's. 



O'Neal was a giant at 7'1", 325 pounds, while Williamson is 6'6" and 285 pounds. Barkley is listed at a generous 6'6" as well. Despite the differences in their size, all three have the ability to dominate games with their bodies. 

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Charles Barkley


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Shaquille O’Neal


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Zion Williamson


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In the post, O'Neal was a straight bully, like against Boston Celtics center Robert Parish. He caught the ball in the post and took one dribble baseline while trying to set up the drop step. Parish had that covered, so O'Neal went through him instead. 


Barkley was a force in the post as well, mostly because of his body positioning. Against the Chicago Bulls, he came across the lane, sealing the defender from the baseline to get to the rim. Then he used a step-through to lose his man and get the layup.



Williamson is already beginning to use his body to push his way to the rim. Against Tristian Thompson, he faced up on the catch and tried to drive by him, but Thompson stayed with him. So he buried his right shoulder in Thompson's chest on his way to the basket.



This is just the beginning of how their games compare. Like O'Neal and Barkley, Williamson can grab a defensive rebound and bust out the break, finding teammates while he does it. In Williamson's NBA debut Jan. 22, he climbed over Jakob Poeltl for a rebound and then hit E'Twaun Moore in transition with a diagonal for a layup on the break.



That's similar to a play Barkley had against the Dallas Mavericks. He skied for the rebound and was off running. He found Julius Erving with a crosscourt pass, and when Erving missed the layup, he was there for the putback.



Even O'Neal showed off his ability to start the break in his first NBA game. After corralling the rebound, O'Neal brought the ball upcourt and finished the play with a Magic Johnson-like no-look pass to Anthony Bowie for the bucket.


There are more areas where O'Neal's and Williamson's games are comparable. Despite being 7'1", O'Neal had agility that most big men could not handle. This allowed him to work on his face-up game in the post.

Below, O'Neal caught Patrick Ewing by facing up and hit him with a jab step to the middle, forcing Ewing to jump that way and concede the baseline. O'Neal went right from the jab step on to the baseline drive and dunked on Ewing.


Now watch how Williamson faced up from the elbow on Anthony Davis to open a driving lane to the rim for a layup. Davis tried to square up the second Williamson turned, and that is right when Williamson attacked.


Williamson already has O'Neal's spinoff down pat. As Lonzo Ball came up the court, Williamson could feel Markieff Morris playing him a little soft, so he immediately spun off him as Ball placed the pass perfectly for the lob dunk.



This was O'Neal's go-to move. Any time a defender tried to stop him or he'd feel his defender wasn't ready, he would just spin off, and his teammates would find him. When Milwaukee's defender tried to bump him off the track to set a ball screen, he spun for the lob.



Barkley's and O'Neal's fingerprints are all over Williamson's game. But there is an area where they excelled, and he hasn't.


Rebound! Rebound! Rebound!

As a rookie, O'Neal averaged 13.9 rebounds per game. Barkley pulled down 8.6 boards per contest during his first year in the league. Williamson has fallen short of that, averaging just 6.8. That is a drop-off from his 8.9 rebounds at Duke.

Comparing his rebounding to Shaq's is probably unfair considering their size difference. However, Barkley, who is also 6'6", was nicknamed the Round Mound of Rebound because of his ability to pound the glass.

Defensively, Barkley averaged 5.3 rebounds in his rookie year. Even against larger players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he could get into position and come out with the ball.


Offensively, Williamson is a good rebounder, especially after his own shot. His second jump is so quick that defenders are coming down off their first jump when he's already leaping a second time. Against the Celtics, after missing a shot on the roll, Williamson went up immediately and got the putback dunk.


Even though Williamson is a good offensive rebounder, Barkley was better in his rookie year. He gobbled up 12.9 percent of offensive rebounds that were available to grab, which is higher than the 10.2 percent from Williamson.

Below, in a sea of purple Los Angeles Lakers jerseys, Barkley emerged with the ball and headed to the rim.


Barkley was better at using his body to box out opponents and get to the glass. His total rebound percentage at 16.9 percent is nearly five percentage points higher than Williamson's 12 percent. It is surprising that rebounding is an area where Williamson will have to improve. 


Defensive IQ

For Williamson to reach the level of greatness of O'Neal and Barkley, his defensive IQ will have to increase. Almost all rookies have low defensive IQs, and he is no exception. Right now, he's using his athleticism, which is netting him some highlight blocks, but he does not fully understand where to be defensively and can get lost.

Against the Mavericks, Williamson was guarding Maxi Kleber on the weak side when Delon Wright drove the lane. He needed to come over earlier but reacted too slowly, and he had no urgency to get to Kleber, who drained the three.


Even when Williamson is defending the pick-and-roll, he tends not to impact the ball-handler. When the Celtics put him in a pick-and-roll, he was stuck in no-man's land. He never stepped in front of Walker to give Ball a chance to recover. Williamson did not move from the elbow after the screen.


These struggles are not shocking, as Williamson is just 19 years old. The hope is that his IQ will improve with more experience. He has all the tools to be a good defender and will have to tap into the well to be considered a great one.

Nineteen games is not enough to make a judgement on the player Williamson will become, but a few things are clear.

Williamson is a star-in-the-making along the lines of O'Neal and Barkley. He has an exciting offensive game that draws attention, but to reach the pantheon of the NBA greats, he will have to improve as a rebounder and defender. O'Neal and Barkley have shown him the path, and it will be on Williamson to take those steps.


Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter @MoDakhil_NBA