Given that videos of Zion Williamson’s thundering, athletic dunks were going viral well before he left high school, plenty of hoops fans were aware that he possessed enormous physical gifts. In Duke’s season-opening destruction Tuesday of Kentucky, however, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound freshman also displayed an impressive skill set, one that had a prominent NBA coach paying him the highest of compliments.
As the Warriors’ Steve Kerr quickly realized, the NBA frowns on team officials such as himself discussing in such a manner players not on his own squad. However, he had already let it be known that when he saw Williamson belie his large frame by handling the ball, hitting shots from outside and making nifty passes, only one thing came to mind: LeBron James.
Asked Wednesday if he had taken note of something related to Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the freakishly gifted star player for Golden State’s upcoming opponent, Kerr replied, “No, but I saw some kid on Duke last night who is pretty impressive. My goodness.”
“I probably can’t say anything more, or mention his name,” the coach continued, before acknowledging that Duke had “lots” of impressive young players. “The one who’s 285,” he specified.
“I thought LeBron, I thought that was a one-shot deal, but apparently the next guy’s coming,” Kerr said. To laughs from the assembled reporters at Golden State’s practice facility, he added, “Before I get fined, I’m going to change the subject.”
While Duke’s R.J. Barrett, a freshman phenom in his own right, actually led his team with 33 points against the Wildcats and is a candidate to go No. 1 overall in next year’s NBA draft, Williamson has quickly emerged as the Blue Devils’ most compelling player. He was far more efficient than Barrett in Duke’s 118-84 triumph over Kentucky, making 11 of 13 shots for 28 points to his teammate’s 13-of-26 shooting performance, and he accomplished the more difficult task in more than living up to an extraordinary amount of hype.
As with the countless number of athletic, scoring wings on the college basketball scene two decades ago who were hopelessly miscast as “the next Michael Jordan,” the comparisons to James could look very foolish, very quickly for Williamson. But in the short term, it’s not hard to understand why Kerr and others would offer them.
Of course, they’re not exactly the same type of athlete, with Williamson making James, listed at 6-8 and 250, look positively sleek. A bit shorter and at a weight that would make him the second-heaviest player in the NBA this season — only the Clippers' 7-3 center, Boban Marjanovic, tips the scales at a higher number, and even then, not by much at 290 — Williamson’s most apt comparison might be Charles Barkley, a similarly undersized, stout forward who could bulldoze past defenders or sky over them.
In the wake of Duke’s win over Kentucky, a former Blue Devil who’s now an ESPN analyst, Jay Williams, invoked that name but mixed in another former NBA star who was renowned for his rim-rocking prowess. “I would go with the Charles Barkley-like frame, that aggression he plays with,” Williams said Wednesday of Williamson, “with Dominique Wilkins’s hops. That’s a scary combination.”
By contrast, James’s size and passing skills had him likened in high school to Magic Johnson, and Williamson isn’t nearly as gifted as a distributor (in fairness, almost no one has been). However, what Kerr likely was getting at was just a sense, in watching both players, that they possess almost unfair attributes compared to their contemporaries.
In reality, it’s already apparent that Williamson, however his basketball career ultimately turns out, is in his own, unique category, just as LeBron isn’t Magic and certainly isn’t Jordan. For now, though, he may be the closest thing we’ll see to an answer to the oft-asked question, “If LeBron had to spend a year in college before joining the NBA — man, what would that have looked like?”
Meanwhile, Kerr has other things to worry about, such as hearing from the NBA about his perhaps overly exuberant comments Wednesday. Sensing that he had at least approached a no-fly zone, Kerr referred to Commissioner Adam Silver in pleading with a smile, “Adam, please don’t fine me, wherever you are.”
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