By now, everyone has seen the viral video clips, the soaring dunks destined for YouTube, the stunning athleticism that allows Zion Williamson to do jaw-dropping things, like sprinting from the paint to block a Virginia corner three-pointer into the stands. Those who watched the Duke freshman closely during his college season often noticed several other things about NBA.com’s consensus No. 1 draft pick. Traits that won’t appear in highlight packages or the forward’s statistics.
“His character – the way he allowed other guys to flourish,” NBA TV analyst Steve Smith said of how Williamson interacted with his Blue Devils teammates. “There are superstars you watch and say, ‘I love their game, but no one else (on his team) can flourish, because they’re so ball-dominant and things (for an offense) stop.’ He can play well without the basketball. What I liked about him is he cared (about the team), he played to win and his character was off the charts.”
“He’s like Steph Curry and Giannis (Antetokounmpo),” said ESPN draft expert Mike Schmitz at the mid-May draft combine, “where he’s your best player, but he’s also your best person and your culture-setter. I think that’s extremely rare.”
As a former Duke player – as well as arguably college basketball’s most prominent TV analyst and popular social-media user – Jay Bilas has a unique perspective on a player many began tabbing as the 2019 draft class’ best months ago.
“(One) thing that is uncommon about Zion Williamson is his maturity level,” Bilas said during the Chicago combine. “He comes in and has had so much thrown at him, so much attention, and it doesn’t seem to phase him. He’s handled it gracefully. He throws the spotlight back on his teammates at every single opportunity.”
Although Williamson has appeared on some magazine covers – including a coveted spot on the front of the current issue of SLAM – Bilas pointed out that the in-demand youngster has declined a few chances to garner even more publicity.
“He’s had opportunities to be on the cover of magazines and said no,” Bilas noted. “Like, who does that at that age? I think that’s a remarkable feature of his.”
Partly due to Williamson’s magnetic presence and the attention that surrounded him entering college, Duke played in front of capacity crowds every night. Blue Devils games generated some of the highest national TV ratings in recent memory for college hoops, with Williamson bringing in casual fans who were curious to see why so many already described him as a future NBA star. NBA TV analyst Mike Fratello believes his pro franchise should expect a significant boost in fan interest and excitement.
“He is what you call a franchise player, because he has the qualities to not only excite people, fill the seats, but he helps his team win,” said Fratello, a former NBA head coach. “He plays both ends of the floor and has an exuberance for the game that people want to see. (Fans) love to watch players who smile, like Steph Curry.”
“He’s a person you want to build your organization around,” ESPN top NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski said of Williamson’s off-court traits. “There are franchise talents, and there are franchise players. He has a chance to be both.”