Zion Williamson is currently setting the college basketball world on fire. At the time of this writing, he has helped lead the Duke Blue Devils to No. 2 in the AP polls. Duke sits at 23-2 and seems ready to make an impressive run in the upcoming NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Naturally with his flashy highlights and gaudy numbers, Zion is attracting a lot of attention regarding his potential as an NBA star. Comparisons he has garnered include: LeBron James, Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin, and Draymond Green. Out of these comparisons, the LeBron comparison is clearly the one getting the most play among media members and fans on social media. While Zion might live up to that tremendous hype and be an NBA phenom, NBA fans, media members, and team executives alike should approach this dangerous comparison with caution.
It has long been an informal NBA draft tradition of pointing to a player in the draft and dubbing them, “The next LeBron”. While this doesn’t happen every year, it is a frequent enough occurrence that several examples can be given from the last ten years. In 2016, Ben Simmons was presented as the next LeBron. In 2014, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were both touted as candidates to become the next King James. In 2011, Derrick Williams got the honor and immense pressure of the LeBron comparison. Even Blake Griffin got some talk of the comparison in 2009 because of his athleticism and handles in college.
This hasn’t been anything new though, as before LeBron it was the MJ comparison that consumed the minds of NBA draft fans. Since the mid-90s, finding the next Jordan was the theme of every draft. 1996 brought Kobe, while ’97 brought Tracy McGrady and ’98 brought Vince Carter. Each had their share of the pressure and the hype, but these three lived up to it reasonably well. The one who didn’t was Deshawn Stevenson in 2000. Scouting reports heading into the draft read, “Stevenson is an extremely gifted athlete, ball handler, and a very advanced shooter and scorer.” The comparison turned out to be off-base as Stevenson went on to be no more than a spot up shooter and intense wing defender who averaged seven points per game for his career.
While it could be said that all of these previous comparisons are irrelevant to Zion, the NBA draft is a tricky science and some prospects who seem like a ‘sure thing’ can turn out to be the most disappointing. Below are three blind statistical comparisons from three players in their last season in college (all statistics retrieved via basketball reference and sports reference):
Between these three, Player A outperforms Player B and C in nearly every raw numbers category. Player B is best in two out of the three efficiency categories. And although Player A is best in the raw numbers, Player B is pretty close getting only one rebound less per game and two points less per game. The biggest discrepancy between these three is 3-point percentage, where Player B has nearly doubled up Player A, and Player C didn’t have a record of 3-point shooting. This statistic is of more importance today as there is such an emphasis on shooting from outside the arc in the NBA. It is fair to say though that all three of these players had similar college statistics. The first grand reveal here is that Player A is Zion Williamson. He is the one with the best raw numbers of the three, but trails in free throw and 3-point efficiency. Below are comparisons of career NBA statistics for players B and C.
Clearly, in their respective NBA careers, Player C far outperformed player B. The only category Player B was better at was 3-point %. But even that is far off of his college mark, dropping from a beautiful 57% to a mediocre 30%.
Now for the final reveal. Player B is Derrick Williams, while Player C is Charles Barkley. Despite Derrick Williams’ college statistics rivaling Barkley’s, and arguably being better depending on the importance one places on 3-point shooting and scoring, Barkley clearly turned out to be the better NBA player. The reason for using Williams’ and Barkley’s stats is that they are similar to Zion in playing style. These comparisons show how despite dominating in college, the skills may not necessarily translate to NBA success.
Two of Zion’s biggest assets to his college game are his athleticism and his body shape. With the raw strength he possesses he is able to have his way fairly easily around the rim and posting up (after watching several of his games I can confirm many of his baskets are from a combination of post ups, put backs, and alley oops). This ability to physically impose himself has led to him taking 76% of his field goal attempts at the rim and having a great field goal percentage, leading many scouts to dub him ‘extremely efficient’. Shooting so many shots from this distance makes his field goal percentage misleading though. Considering shots at the rim means dunk attempts or layups, it makes sense that his field goal percentage is sky-high.. This is key for a player, who despite weighing in at 275 lbs., stands at a mere 6’6”. While this is not problematic in college, the NBA is a different story. Zion will most likely be playing small forward or power forward in the NBA, where the average heights for these positions (per hoopsgeek.com) are 6’8” and 6’9”. Zion may be able to overcome his diminutive stature in the NBA with brute force or leaping ability, much like the 6’5” Charles Barkley or the 6’6” Larry Johnson, but more recent evidence suggests this might not be the case.
The player drafted since 2010 to most closely resemble Zion is Derrick Williams. While it seems foolish now, people often forget that on draft night in 2011, drafting the 6’8”, 250 lbs. Williams over Kyrie Irving was a legit discussion to be had. Williams played extremely similar in college to how Zion has this year. He would use his physicality and muscle to bully his college defenders who were almost always smaller than him. He frequently scored on fast breaks, alley oops, and post ups, using his body to his advantage. The main difference between the two was that Derrick had a stellar 3-point game in college. After being selected as the No. 2 pick, Williams was ready to impress in the NBA. He soon ran into the problems Zion may well face.
His NBA competitors were much taller, faster, and stronger than his competition college. His strength and size, which were irregular and outstanding in college, were now average in the NBA. Derrick was also left without a defined position because of his size. Like many players his size, Derrick was too slow to keep up with NBA small forwards, but too short to guard power forwards. Moves he pulled off with ease in college weren’t available to him at the NBA level because of his lack of speed or height in a given matchup. His 3-point shot disappeared as the deeper line and decreased open looks messed with him. After failing to figure out where his fit was in the NBA, his career quietly faded. After seven seasons, Derrick Williams is now out of the league.
Is Zion Williamson the next Derrick Williams? Not necessarily. He has the potential to end up closer to a Charles Barkley-type player in the long run. He also has much better ball handling skills Williams did, which should help him if he’s forced to play small forward at some point. Trying to compare Zion to LeBron is sloppy though. LeBron is much more of a distributor than Zion has shown to be (currently only averaging two assists), LeBron showed more defensive potential than Zion, (remember many of Zion’s college blocks are a result of guarding guys 2-3 inches shorter than him and not nearly as athletic), LeBron could guard any position besides center coming into the league (Zion is suited really only to guard forwards). Zion’s best comparison in my eyes is a shorter Blake Griffin, a.k.a. former all-star Larry Johnson. Hyper athletic, good scoring abilities, undersized, but very strong. I hope the best for Zion Williamson, and he has immense potential and could be a star in the NBA. Just keep in mind, for every Blake Griffin, LeBron, or Charles Barkley, there’s dozens of Derrick Williams.
Below just for fun I’ve highlighted some of the most notable overhyped draft comparisons (per draftnet.com) and the years the players were drafted.
Darko Milicic – Dirk Nowitzki
Andrea Bargnani – Dirk Nowitzki
Michael Beasley – Carmelo Anthony
Hasheem Thabeet – Dikembe Mutombo
Ricky Rubio – Steve Nash
Derrick Williams – Blake Griffin, LeBron James
Jimmer Fredette – Stephen Curry
Anthony Bennett – Paul Millsap, Antawn Jamison
Ben McLemore – Ray Allen
Victor Oladipo – Dwyane Wade
Andrew Wiggins – Tracy McGrady, LeBron James
Jabari Parker – LeBron James
Joel Embiid – Hakeem Olajuwon
Emmanuel Mudiay – Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose
Jahlil Okafor – Brook Lopez
Kristaps Porzingis – Dirk Nowitzki
Ben Simmons – LeBron James, Magic Johnson
Brandon Ingram – Kevin Durant
Lonzo Ball – Jason Kidd
Markelle Fultz – Damian Lillard
Trae Young – Stephen Curry
Michael Porter Jr. – LeBron James
Zion Williamson – LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Charles Barkley