There may be no more storied NBA tradition than attempts to come up with player comparisons for incoming rookies, a staple of pre-draft analysis that probably dates back to the beginning of the league in the 1940s. For many first-year pros, there are plenty of easy analogies, but in the case of Zion Williamson, draft gurus have mostly shaken their heads in confusion. After all, how many players have entered the NBA after being listed in their college game program at 6-foot-7, 285 pounds? How many prospects anywhere near those measurables were also considered a premier athlete?
On the popular site NBADraft.net, Williamson’s listed player comparisons are Charles Barkley and Larry Johnson, but Williamson is taller and bigger than both, as well as at least a bit more athletic, as evidenced by the Duke product’s highlight-reel dunks and blocks.
“There are some things he obviously needs to work on, but at 6-7, 285, people ask who does he remind me of? Nobody,” NBA TV studio analyst Steve Smith said during his network’s pre-draft coverage. “There is not anyone I’ve seen like this (at that size). No one has jumped like this. There is nobody he reminds me of.”
“I haven’t seen anyone like him on the basketball court, and I don’t think there ever has been,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas on-air during the draft combine, before referencing Williamson’s memorable crosscourt pursuit and swat of a corner three-point shot by Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter. “I couldn’t even wrap my head around that, doing that game (on TV). It was incredible.”
In addition to some of his unique natural gifts, Bilas’ ESPN colleague Mike Schmitz provided Williamson with one of the biggest compliments a young player can receive, related to the consistent effort the 18-year-old brings to the hardwood.
“We’ve never seen a (star) guy play this hard,” Schmitz said. “People want to say he’s undersized at 6-7 (length-wise for a big) but he plays like he’s 7 feet tall because of his bounce and effort. If you’re telling me he can’t protect the rim, I don’t agree with that at all. He has great feet, he can switch ball screens, and it’s really his effort and motor that stands out to me. He plays harder than any No. 1 prospect in recent memory.”
Beyond Williamson’s physical package and top-tier intensity, draft analysts are excited by the South Carolina native’s versatile skill set, particularly in terms of his NBA potential and room to continue to improve.
“He can switch all five positions, he can protect the rim,” Schmitz said of a player who averaged 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks in 33 college games. “Then on offense he’s a mismatch nightmare who can create offense from all over the floor.
“On top of that, they are not just getting a talented kid who fits into today’s game. He is so much more than an athlete, and that’s what I want to get across. We’ve seen the dunks and the blocks, all that, but this guy can handle and pass, his IQ is incredible, and I think he’s going to fit perfectly in today’s NBA.”
“We’ve never seen anyone with this size and jumping ability, but he still needs to work on his shot,” Smith said, referencing Williamson’s 33.8 percent three-point shooting and 64.0 percent foul shooting at Duke. “His handle, defense and rebounding can improve. Saying all that, he’s still pretty spectacular and still has huge room to grow. The potential is pretty unbelievable if all of that stuff starts to come together.”
Bilas: “I don’t know that there are people that doubt him. I haven’t heard that. It’s just a question of how great he’s going to be. He’s stepping into a league of established superstars. If he stays healthy, he’s got greatness in his future. It’s just a question of how great.”