The #TankForZion hypetrain has begun, but is it too soon?
Writer: Noah Magaro-George
Duke freshman Zion Williamson is fresh off his 18th birthday, but he’s already one of the most hyped NBA Draft prospects in recent memory. And with good reason. He runs like a sprinter, he leaps like a receiver and he’s built like a linebacker. At 6’ 7” and a whopping 285-pounds, Williamson stands eye-to-eye with DeMar DeRozan while weighing in a mere five pounds under the NBA’s tallest and heaviest player, Boban Marjanović.
The college basketball season has yet to begin, and 2018 NBA Draft took place just over two months ago. But that hasn’t stopped basketball fans everywhere from prematurely dubbing the electrifying freshman as the next big thing. After showing out to a tune of 30 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists a night over three games, #TankForZion has trended across Twitter in the days following Duke’s preseason Canada Tour.
Gravity-defying putbacks and free-throw line jams swept the basketball nation off its feet and into a collective Zion Williamson frenzy throughout his high school hoops career. As South Carolina’s Mr. Basketball, a McDonald’s All-American and a top-five recruit in his graduating class, Zion’s resume speaks for itself.
Though Williamson’s countless highlight videos garnered millions of views across the internet, a very serious question remains. Do the viral sensation’s skills translate to the NBA level? First, let’s take a look at what we know about the freshman phenom.
Zion is an elite level athlete with a vertical jump unrivaled by even some of the NBA’s greatest highflyers. His sturdy frame makes his body more than NBA ready, so any concerns about his ability to rebound the ball amid the physicality of the league can be thrown out the window. Williamson’s motor is relentless on both ends, though he relies heavily on his quick first step, grown-man strength and left-handedness to dominate his opponents.
In spite of all his natural-born athletic advantages, Zion is fundamentally an incredibly raw basketball player. Despite advanced handles for a player of his position, you’d never want nor ask the undersized power forward to take the ball up court on a play to play basis. His jumper is inconsistent, his defense is more instinctual than intellectual, and he lacks a legitimate go-to move when put in isolation situations.
For all we know about the Blue Devil star, there are just too many unanswered questions about his game to appoint him a can’t-miss prospect before he’s played a single game in the NCAA. Who will he be able to guard in the pros? What is his NBA position? When will he learn to shoot with consistency? Where is his offhand in development? Why don’t we see more advanced scoring moves? How does he elevate his teammates?
Just because Williamson presently lacks what many NBA teams will eventually ask of him isn’t to say he won’t evolve to become a transcendent player. We’ve seen much less prominent talents like Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler grind their way to superstardom, so anything is possible. However, we’ve also heard the sure thing gone bust storyline enough times to know that nothing’s promised when it comes to NBA prospects.
Take the cautionary tale of another undersized forward Anthony Bennett for example. Like Zion, Bennett was a top ten high school recruit, McDonald’s All-American and coveted NBA talent. He overmatched his competition with brute force, blowby explosiveness and an above the rim game fueled by an undying tenacity on the offensive end.
Following his lone season at UNLV, Bennett had scouts and executives drooling at the chance to develop such a unique talent. Eventually, he went on the be selected first overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, and the rest is history. Bennett quickly struggled to find a position on the court and a place on an NBA roster.
5 games in, Bennet finally made his first field goal on a wide-open straight line three in Milwaukee. Three months later, he hit double digits in scoring for the first time in 33 games. Three years later, and Anthony was out of the league altogether and undeniably the worst draft day letdown since Darko Miličić and his frosted tips crossed the stage in 2003.
I get it. Zion Williamson is not the same player Anthony Bennett was. Not only is he an inch shorter, he’s 40 pounds heavier and can leap out of the building in a way Bennett never could. To be honest, much of Bennett’s woes stemmed from his perceived lack of desire to change his routine to fit the life of a professional basketball player.
Although there have been no such concerns for Zion, the same could be said for Bennett before he entered the spotlight of the NBA. The UNLV standout was likely never destined for stardom, but he should serve as a warning to those who have jumped the gun on designating Zion Williamson as the future of their franchise.
Should your team #TankForZion this year? Probably not. But if he falls into your lap in an underachieving lottery season, there's definitely some cause for celebration. While Williamson may never become the superstar fans are hoping for, his work ethic alone will keep him from becoming a massive bust. He has the potential for so much more, now it's up to Zion Williamson to decide what he'll become.