Should Zion Williamson shut it down?

Zion WilliamsonScottie Pippen is getting credit for igniting a national debate over the near-future of Duke basketball phenom Zion Williamson.

Pippen suggested this week that Williamson, a freshman expected to be the top pick in the June NBA draft, should shut himself down, at the risk of suffering an injury that would diminish his draft stock, and his NBA prospects.

Nobody outside of our dedicated podcast listeners can vouch for this, but I’ll tell you that my colleague Scott German has been making this case for several weeks, about Williamson and his teammates R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, also freshmen, also projected lottery picks in the June NBA draft.

Each time Scott has brought this up during a discussion of Duke basketball on the podcast, I’ve responded dismissively, writing off the observation because Scott is a well-known Duke hater, and assuming that the only reason Scott is bringing the topic up is, essentially, wishful thinking.

I feel bad for saying now that I’m willing to look at the pros and cons of the idea only because it’s Scottie Pippen bringing it up, and not my podcast buddy Scott, in part because it’s the second time this week I’ve had to say, OK, Scott, you were right, I was wrong.

(He had UVA blowing out Virginia Tech Tuesday night; I had that game being a one-possession nailbiter.)

First, to the pros: Why Zion Williamson should shut it down

What the hell else does Williamson have to prove?

He’s averaging 21.2 points per game on 66.2 percent shooting. He’s shooting 73.9 percent on two-point shots.

He’s also the team’s best defender, per sports-reference.com, and the second-best defender in the ACC.

At 6’7”, 285, Williamson is a physical anomaly, with the size of an NFL defensive tackle, the speed of a defensive end, and the leaping ability of a wide receiver.

There are holes in his game, if it’s OK for me to say so. Looking at him at the next level, he projects right now as a smallish four, height-wise. He doesn’t have the ball-handling and dribble-drive ability to play the three, not yet.

He can make the three, but his shooting stroke from the perimeter is still pretty pedestrian, basically a set shot that takes forever to wind up and get out.

People keep saying, Charles Barkley, as a comparison point. I’m thinking more, Zach Randolph or Carlos Boozer, which, before you start the GoFundMe to pay a guy to stand outside my house singing the UMBC fight song non-stop – Randolph averaged 16.6 points a game in a 17-year NBA career, and Boozer averaged 16.2 points a game in 13 NBA seasons.

For those who listen to and read me regularly, you know that I’m not prone to hyperbole, so, comparing a kid to a Hall of Famer, not going to happen here.

Barkley, for what it’s worth, put up 22.1 points a game in 16 NBA seasons.

I’ll concede that Williamson is somewhere in there, between Randolph, Boozer and Barkley, probably a lot closer to Barkley, but again, hyperbole.

None of what the kid needs to work on to get there is going to get better between now and the first Monday in April. It won’t even necessarily get fixed between April and summer league, between summer league and the start of NBA camp in September.

It might take an NBA offseason or two before you see Williamson become the Williamson that he will eventually be.

This season, he’ll play Virginia twice, Carolina twice. It’s safe to assume that he’ll play in at least a few big-time games in March, maybe one or two in April.

I can’t think of any games in which Williamson will face anybody who will come close to his package of size and athleticism.

ESPN loves telling you how many dunks he has at any given point in time in a season, but this isn’t a good thing for him skills-development-wise.

He’s basically the big kid for his age dominating a YMCA rec-league game.

He needs to play better competition so he can get better himself.

The cons: It’s crazy to suggest he shut it down

OK, for starters, he’s not going to shut it down, whether Scottie Pippen, Scott German or Scott Boras suggests it.

I’m not buying the idea that he somehow hurts his draft stock if he does shut down. We all already know what he brings to the table for whoever has the first pick, and we can project out what he will be in Year 2, Year 3 and beyond based on what we’ve seen.

I’m also not buying that he’s not going to shut down because he has so much to learn from Coach K between now and April.

All due respect to Coach K, but Zion Williamson isn’t a development project. When you have the privilege of having a talent like Zion Williamson for one year on his way between high school and the NBA, your main job is to not screw him up.

The most important thing Krzyzewski can do is not overuse Williamson, and, credit there: Williamson is averaging 26.8 minutes per game, though he did go 44 in the overtime loss to Syracuse on Monday, which, if that kind of thing happens again, might be the basis for a claim of malpractice.

Freak injuries happen, as Duke fans saw when freshman point guard Tre Jones went down early in the Syracuse loss with a shoulder injury that happened on a hustle play on a loose ball.

Injuries are more likely to happen when guys are fatigued, and Williamson, being a bigger guy, you have to watch that for him, is what I’d say here.

Krzyzewski knows this. He won’t be the coach who broke Zion Williamson.

And Zion Williamson isn’t going to be the kid who breaks Coach K.

The Williamsons and R.J. Barretts and Cam Reddishes of the world want to spend their NBA-mandated year between high school and college with Coach K because it looks good on the resume.

It’s like a kid who wants to work in finance doing a summer interning with Goldman Sachs, an aspiring politico schlepping a semester on Capitol Hill.

Williamson was already at worst a top five NBA draft pick when he committed to Duke.

He didn’t go to Duke to learn how Mike Krzyzewski thinks you should defend the pick-and-roll.

He went there to win a championship.

Zion Williamson scoring 21 points on 66 percent shooting playing top-of-the-line defense is the best bet for this Duke team to win a championship.

And he knows it.

You knew this before you clicked on the story, but, yes, it’s a non-story.

Column by Chris Graham

 

 

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Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is now available at a special pre-sale discounted price of $20. The book is expected to ship by June 10, 2019, and will retail for $25.
Pre-order for $20: click here.


The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.
 
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