DURHAM, N.C. — The 1998 film “He Got Game” includes an unforgettable montage of famous coaches and players bestowing praise on basketball prodigy Jesus Shuttlesworth. The scene picks up speed as the testimonials get increasingly hyperbolic, eventually dissolving into an incantation: “Jesus! Jesus! Oh, Jesus!”
It’s no surprise, then, that Spike Lee, the film’s acclaimed director, was drawn this week to Duke University, where hoops hype has again reached biblical proportions. Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson has emerged as a player of the year candidate and likely top pick in June’s NBA draft, but his blown-out Nike shoe and subsequent knee sprain spawned new rounds of hyperventilating. Suddenly, the 18-year-old freshman was at the center of debates over whether he should sit out the rest of the season to protect his draft stock, whether he should be paid a portion of the television and ticket revenue he was helping to generate and whether his sneaker mishap might aid his future endorsement negotiations.
These financial, labor and marketing conversations are irresistible, but so is Williamson’s basketball potential.
His 6-foot-7, 285-pound body inspires gridiron references, and he hurtles around the court like a weapon of war. The Instagram sensation dunks like LeBron James, muscles through taller opponents like Charles Barkley and covers ground defensively like Draymond Green. Williamson is the rare prospect who satisfies virtually everyone: Casual observers who judge players by the “eye test” love him, old-school types who value grit and motor love him, and new-school quantitative analysts who utilize PER, WARP and other statistical acronyms really love him.
There are questions. Williamson isn’t a premier outside shooter, and some analysts worry about whether his body can withstand the NBA’s rigorous schedule and his own unbelievable force. There’s also the matter of his ideal NBA fit. Williamson might be built like a power forward, but he attacks like a guard, finishes like a highflying small forward and protects the rim like a center.
“People try to compare us, and he’s more explosive than I was,” said Barkley, a 6-6 Hall of Fame power forward who overcame doubts about his undersized status. “It would have been easier for him to play in my day than in today’s game. Back then, we just beat the hell out of each other. What position does he play now? I’m smart enough to know it would have been difficult for me to chase these little munchkins shooting threes and running around picks today. It’s a different animal and it won’t be easy for him.”
Shaquille O’Neal shared Barkley’s concerns, citing Williamson’s 29 percent three-point shooting and the fact that he’s three inches shorter than most NBA big men.
“When I watch him, I see a lot of dunks,” the Hall of Fame center said. “Take it from the number one dunker: There’s more to the game than just dunking. He’s doing great now, but he’s going to meet a lot of guys who can do the same things he can do in the NBA. He’s going to have to adjust, work on his shot more and throw in some more post moves.”
While Williamson doesn’t fit cleanly into a positional box, that might be a strength rather than a liability in the pace-and-space era. In recent years, premier teams have increasingly turned to small-ball lineups and switching defenses, developments that have created more opportunities for one-on-one playmakers and placed a priority on interchangeable defenders. What’s more, the league has instituted new “freedom of movement” rules that favor forceful offensive players by cutting down on off-ball contact.
All of those developments play to Williamson’s favor. In interviews, multiple scouts have likened his best-case role on offense to that of Giannis Antetokounmpo. While the Milwaukee Bucks forward isn’t a reliable three-point shooter, his abilities to pressure the rim and find the open man when defenses collapse have powered an offense that ranks fifth in efficiency and second in three-pointers. As Williamson ages and improves as a passer, these scouts believe, he could function as a point forward much like James or Antetokounmpo — attacking off the dribble to draw attention and then making simple reads based on what the defense gives him.
The key to making such a scheme work is Williamson’s defensive versatility. His quick jumping ability, vertical explosiveness, excellent timing and forceful rebounding should allow him to play both power forward and small-ball center. Being able to “play up” a position on defense will allow his coaches to surround him with more shooters, a strategic approach that has been crucial to James’s late-career success and Antetokounmpo’s rise.
Like Green, the Golden State Warriors’ defensive player of the year, Williamson appears agile enough to switch onto smaller players on the perimeter. For that reason, it’s easy to envision him becoming his NBA team’s most valuable offensive player and its most valuable defensive player within two or three seasons.
Kenny Smith, who provides commentary alongside Barkley and O’Neal on TNT, doesn’t share his colleagues’ concerns about Williamson’s NBA fit. “I’ve never seen a guy like him in college in the last 10 years or so,” Smith said. “He’s a freak of nature. He’ll start carving out territory and create a new position just like Charles Barkley did. Let’s be clear: Zion is different.”
Which position will Williamson play? The answer might be this simple: Whichever position he desires.
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