To gain more insight into one of the newest members of the New Orleans Pelicans – No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Zion Williamson – we caught up with Steve Wiseman, sports editor for the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun. Wiseman covered Williamson during the forward’s college season at Duke University, where the freshman averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks.
Wiseman addressed the South Carolina native’s background and some of his primary traits on and off the court:
Pelicans.com: Unlike many of the players drafted Thursday in Brooklyn, Williamson is extraordinarily well known, even to those who don’t follow college basketball closely. Based on your expectations coming into his freshman season and what you saw on the court, what were the most surprising or impressive aspects of what Williamson did in his 33 games at Duke?
Wiseman: The way he played hard from beginning to end every night. Here is a guy with superior talent who can excel based on that alone. Yet he routinely dived for loose balls on the court, exposing his body to injury, I might add. I noticed it early in November even in games against Stetson or Eastern Michigan. Boston College coach Jim Christian made a point to mention this during his postgame press conference in early February at Cameron Indoor. He was amazed and impressed by this. Me too.
Pelicans.com: Off the court, he seems to be universally praised by those who interacted with him. How did you view him maturity-wise at just 18, and why do you think he’s gotten such rave reviews?
Wiseman: It struck me from the first time I sat down with him for a one-on-one interview last July. He had just turned 18. At that point, RJ Barrett and Cameron Reddish were seen as better recruits. Yet Zion felt no pressure. He was engaging in our conversation and just seemed very comfortable in his own skin. Even as the season wore on and the crush of media around him grew, he enjoyed it while not being arrogant or entitled.
Pelicans.com: What were some of the areas basketball-wise he improved most from the beginning of his freshman season to the spring?
Wiseman: His perimeter shooting as a whole and 3-point shooting in particular. I doubted his ability to score outside the lane. He only made 3 of his first 18 3-pointers over November and December. But he worked on his shot with Duke’s coaches and finished at 33.8 percent for the season. He saw teams were backing off him so he knew he had to get better and he did so in a hurry.
Pelicans.com: What areas do you think he has the most room to make strides, or aspects of his game he may need to improve or adjust as he transitions to NBA competition?
Wiseman: His shot continues to need work since the NBA 3-point line is deeper. He has to be a threat out there so he can take full advantage of his ability to drive and score. He’ll also need a variety of moves once in the lane against taller defenders. He is quick and strong. But he’ll need to be even more creative because he’ll face better rim protectors than he did in college.
Pelicans.com: There have been many articles written about how Duke’s national TV ratings were among the highest for any college team over the past decade-plus, with a big chunk of that clearly due to Williamson’s presence. Having covered the Blue Devils for years, how would you describe the excitement and buzz surrounding the program in 2018-19, from a local perspective and when the team played in other cities?
Wiseman: Yeah I’ve made the comparison to it being the college basketball version of on tour with the Beatles. People showed up to watch pregame warmups. They always do that at Cameron Indoor but I saw it more on the road than in previous seasons. Zion was always among the final guys to come out of the locker room for pregame. You could hear the noise in the building when he first appeared. It started slowly in November but grew quickly as the games progressed. That blowout vs. Kentucky to open the season put everyone on notice. Everyone saw the highlights and wanted to see him in person.
Pelicans.com: From your personal perspective or that of people who followed Williamson at Duke, what do you think fans in New Orleans should be most excited about to be able to witness Williamson launch his NBA career here in the Crescent City?
Wiseman: The fact that he’ll be yours for several seasons. He will embrace the city and the team. He loves to compete and win. Having spent part of my career covering the Saints 20 years ago, I can tell you he will fit right in with that city’s sports culture. I can see him riding in Mardi Gras parades. He’ll put on a show and New Orleans fans will get to witness it night after night.
Pelicans.com: What’s one thing even diehard Duke basketball fans may not know about Williamson?
Wiseman: What makes him such a good teammate is his inclusiveness. He doesn’t want to overshadow others even though that’s an impossible task. He’s a confident player but not arrogant or selfish. That’s very hard to pull off but he did it. He roomed with RJ Barrett last year. They are close friends even though it would have been easy for jealousy to set in because they are both so good.