A screwy thing to consider is that Zion Williamson might be underrated. He might just be a victim of his own clamorous dunks. His appeal to a thrill-seeking general public might have smothered his appeal to hopeless basketball geeks.
“How he reads the game,” his teammate, Duke junior Jack White, said last weekend during the ACC tournament in Charlotte, when Williamson’s reading stood out. In addition to all the things that caused the points to amass, the rebounds to mount and the highlight editors to coo, Williamson left strewn across the floor what people sometimes call “basketball plays.”
In addition to dunks and rebound-dunks and other dunks, Williamson seems to fill the game with little things that alter its course, with taps and alterations and bright ideas about where to turn up. The least he could do for opponents is care a tad less, yet his care seems also outsized, turning up in all the otherworldly ways but also in those both pedestrian and crucial.
To his sophomore teammate Jordan Goldwire, the one that stuck in memory happened with 5:13 left in the first half of the ACC championship. Florida State had led 27-19. Duke had just narrowed that to 27-24. Florida State’s David Nichols dribbled downcourt. Duke’s Tre Jones fastened himself to Nichols near the half-court line.
Nichols, still dribbling, turned his back to the action for just a blip. Uh-oh. The kinetic student of the game turned right up. “Zion jumped straight over there, right?” Goldwire said. “That’s just off instinct. He’s just such a smart player. He does so many things for this team.”
With Williamson having joined Jones for a harrowing double-team at Nichols’s expense, Nichols soon flung out the ball, which strayed to R.J. Barrett, who appeared to enjoy his uncluttered path down the court to a combusting jam.
“I mean, as much attention as he gets for these big highlight plays, I think that kind of takes away in a sense from, you know, obviously just being in the right spot, altering shots, getting rebounds, tapping a loose ball so we can start a fast break,” White said. “I mean, he does it all. And I guess, with me, I mean, seeing him the whole year, in practice, you know how hard he works every day. And he comes in with the same mind-set that he does in games. You know, his improvement throughout the year has been phenomenal and you can see at this point, he’s just unbelievable.
“He’s got unbelievable instincts. He just loves the game of basketball. You know, it shows with his passion he brings, and, you know, how he reads the game. Something I think he doesn’t get credit for a lot is, you know, his smarts. You know, he’s a really smart player. He’s always in the right spot. You rarely see him make a bad play. You know, whenever he gets the ball, something happens for us.”
Williamson’s two assists in the ACC title game might illustrate the dichotomy between the celebrated and the under-celebrated. In just those two, he offered one treat for the connoisseur and one for those who stop by basketball every now and then for a spectacle.
The one that happened with 16:33 left in the game was the marvel, when Williamson collected a defensive rebound, took two dribbles toward Duke’s offensive end and stopped to fling a Clayton Kershaw piece of accuracy with his favored left hand, bouncing it 50 feet up the court to Jones for a layup. That took some creativity.
Yet on the one with 15:27 left in the first half, Williamson dribbled slowly on the left of the perimeter against Florida State’s lengthy defense. He edged toward the middle, closely watched by the usual several. His fifth dribble went through his legs from the right to the left, but that dribble wasn’t just for show.
It made its little trip with purpose.
With the defense leaning one way, he shipped a bounce pass against its grain down the left side of the lane to Javin DeLaurier, the 6-foot-10 junior who jammed it. The pass got less wows than the other in the assist cheering section, yet was absolutely delicious, born of a deftness rarely expected of someone 6-8 and 285 pounds.
“He’s great at everything, to be honest,” DeLaurier said. “In terms of obviously, everyone sees the highlight dunks and stuff, but he’s always going to get a ton of deflections, a ton of boards, loose balls. He’s a great talker, a communicator on defense. He does all the little stuff that you want in a teammate. He’s a great teammate.”
Even in the assessment of Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton, widely known as one of the world’s youngest 70-year-olds, the dazzling stuff mingled with the nuts-and-bolts stuff.
“This guy, he’s a world-class athlete,” Hamilton said. “His quickness, his speed, his strength, his power, his ability to stop and start and change direction, how fast he gets up, he changes things. I mean, and it’s hard to match that level of special athlete. And he deserves the recognition that he’s getting. He’s a great guy, competitive, loves to play. He makes everybody around him better, and our hat goes off to him. So you can put him down as one of the greatest athletes that ever has come through the ACC, and there have been quite a few of them.”
In a world that has seen its share of physical talent, which becomes a rationalization for compromising on heart and will and the little things, Williamson doesn’t seem to be much of a rationalizer or a compromiser. “Stop and start and change direction” and “how fast he gets up” and “loves to play” can always work their way onto the “little things” list.
“ . . . And Zion can miss a layup, but he’s almost back up tipping it quicker than anyone can realize the shot’s been missed,” Hamilton said.
That knack would seem to fall into both categories, the awe and the aw-shucks.
“He just loves the game of basketball,” White said. “You know, it shows with his passion he brings, and, you know, how he reads the game. Something I think he doesn’t get credit for a lot is, you know, his smarts.
“You know, he’s a really smart player. He’s always in the right spot. You rarely see him make a bad play. You know, whenever he gets the ball, something happens for us . . . Eighteen years old, someone of his size, to handle the ball like he does, read like he does, with his athleticism and just his overall, I guess, talent for the game, I’ve never seen anything like it.”