In an unlikely turn of events, New Orleans moved up from the seventh spot to the top of this year’s NBA draft lottery Tuesday night, earning the right to select Zion Williamson, the consensus No. 1 pick, in next month’s NBA draft. Now the intrigue begins around whether Williamson’s presence can convince star center Anthony Davis with the team.
Williamson is tailor made for the NBA, a league that prioritizes layups and trips to the free throw line, two of the most-efficient shots a player can attempt. He uses his 6-foot-7, 285-pound frame to muscle his way to the rim, where he uses either a floater at different angles and heights to get around defenders or simply bull rushes his way to highlight-reel worthy dunks that few can stop. And those unfortunate enough to take a charge from Williamson are hit with a force similar to that of a “head-on collision with a Jeep traveling 10 miles per hour,” University of Lynchburg physicist Eric Goff told the Wall Street Journal.
In his one-and-done season at Duke, Williamson led all of Division I men’s college basketball in effective field goal percentage (.708) and player efficiency rating (40.8), an all-in-one basketball rating created by John Hollinger that takes into account a player’s per-minute performance while also adjusting for pace. In fact, Williamson is the only college player to have a PER over 40 since 2009-10, the first year data is available for the college ranks. He also scored 1.5 points per attempt at or near the rim in 2018-19 with Duke and drew a shooting foul 17 percent of the time, both good enough to put him in the 97th percentile among NCAA players. By comparison, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 1.5 points per possession around the rim in 2018-19 and drew a shooting foul 19 percent of the time.
This isn’t to say Williamson is the next Antetokounmpo, but according to projections by ESPN Analytics, Williamson has a 76 percent chance to play at an all-star level in the NBA, the highest upside of any player since 2005, the first year data is available, and 10 percentage points higher than the estimates for Kevin Durant in 2007.
You can’t question Williamson’s talent but you can question if he will get to play alongside Davis, the six-time all-star who demanded a trade during the 2018-19 season. New Orleans declined offers all season long and now hopes the potential of Williamson joining the team is enough to sway Davis to stay and make a run for the playoffs, yet Shams Charania of the Athletic reports that’s not likely to happen.
Still, a trio of Williamson, Davis and Jrue Holiday is appealing, especially on the pick-and-roll. Holiday would have his choice of Davis — who can roll to the basket or step away from the rim on pick-and-pops — or Williamson cutting to the rim. Holiday also showed prowess running the pick-and-roll this season. The team scored 1.1 points per possession off all his passes on these plays and that improved to 1.3 points per possession when he dished it off to the roll man. Only rookie sensation Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks was more efficient in these situations (1.4) among players using at least 150 pick-and-roll possessions.
If Davis does get dealt, it makes sense to acquire assets that would compliment Williamson’s playing style. Specifically, perimeter shooters who can help space the floor and open up driving lanes to the basket. New Orleans ranked 24th for percentage of field goal attempts taken from three-point range in 2018-19 and among the players currently under contract for 2019-20 only Holiday averaged more than five three-point attempts per game.
Still, expect there to be a learning curve. There have been three teenagers drafted No. 1 overall in the lottery era who also played enough to qualify for the scoring title: LeBron James (2003), Dwight Howard (2004) and Andrew Wiggins (2014). James played 39.5 minutes a night as a rookie and used 28 percent of the team’s possessions yet was worth only 1.9 points per 100 possessions more than a league-average player (1.9 BPM). During his peak he was worth in excess of 10 points per 100 possessions more than a league-average player. Howard was worth 1.0 points per 100 possessions more than a league-average player during his rookie season and Wiggins finished his initial campaign with a BPM of minus-2.3. Wiggins has yet to realize his potential in the NBA but James (four-time MVP and three-time NBA champ) and Howard (three-time defensive player of the year and eight-time All-NBA selection) obviously left their mark on the NBA.
“It’s definitely sky’s the limit,” Isiah Thomas, Hall of Fame member and one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, told Marc Berman of the New York Post. “His athleticism is eye-opening. Very few people come to our league with this type of athleticism. ... If he continues to grow at mature he can be quite special.”
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