The real thing rarely lives up to the hype, but incoming Duke freshman Zion Williamson might be the exception. The 6-foot-7, 285-pound fullback in a power forward's body turned into Twitter's dunking Paul Bunyon during his time at little-known, K-12 Spartanburg Day School in South Carolina. So much so, that Drake rocked his obscure HS uni, and when Williamson faced LaMelo Ball in a Las Vegas AAU game the summer before his senior season, there was nearly a riot from the crush of bodies looking to see him in person. Despite facing some mediocre competition in Adidas' AAU Gauntlet series (Nike's EYBL is easily the best), Williamson became the most hyped high school player since the NBA instituted the age minimum.
The five-star stud joined fellow top recruits, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, at Duke in the finest recruiting haul since Michigan's Fab Five. Despite the young talent, the Blue Devils are slight underdogs against Kentucky in the State Farm Champions Classic Tuesday night. But with Zion set to lift off, here's a primer on college basketball's next big thing.
What makes him so unique?
At his size and weight, he seems to fit in the Robert "Tractor" Traylor mold of bruising bigs. But he can also leap with same explosiveness of some of the NBA's greatest dunkers.
When Rivals' Eric Bossi, who has been scouting high school players for well over a decade, was asked who Zion reminded him of, he was at a loss. "Well, no one really," he said. "He’s the first Zion. He’s such a unique player that we still really don’t know how some of these things we’ve seen will translate. We’ve not really seen someone like him before."
Jerry Meyer, Director of Basketball Scouting for 247Sports explained how supernatural Zion's athleticism really is in comparison to those who have come before him: "To have such an explosive burst carrying with that type of dense weight is a scary thing. It’s freakish. He’s unsettling."
This two-handed block in the summer of 2017 was all anyone wanted to talk about at the time:
But it was Zion's dunks, in that hefty body, that have left spectators gasping for air and adjusting their screens. At his current weight, approaching 300 pounds, he would be the second heaviest player—only trailing 7'3" giant Boban Marjonivich—in the entire Association. The only difference is that he can dunk from the dang charity stripe:
Picture someone an inch shorter than LeBron but around 40 pounds heavier and still capable of setting the Duke vertical jump record:
That body with that athleticism, particularly in flight, is revolutionary.
A viral sensation is born.
More than anyone before him, Zion's legend was born online. And once again, it all comes down to those nutty slam dunks. They're what initially made him famous, and what should help make him a household name moving forward. Here's one from his high school days, which we're still trying to convince ourselves is not the result of camera trickery.
Look at how fast he gets back in the air on this follow:
He seems to reach back almost to the court on his windmills and it's just ridiculously fluid:
When he's bored of the windmills, he just adds a 360-degree spin for good measure.
It's remarkable he can pull these dunks off in the game, too:
We're not sure Vinsanity could even eclipse this one:
But can he shoot?
He's already shown improvement in his form since going to Durham, and even went 3-of-4 from downtown in his first Duke showing:
However, he's got a long way to go before he can keep defenses honest at the next level, even if the improvements in his mechanics from high school to college are encouraging.
Where does he slot in the NBA?
Most scouts think of Zion, with that big body, as a center in the NBA, despite his short stature (only a 6'10" wingspan). But when you can jump like Zion, his height isn't as much of a factor.
He showed his underrated passing ability in preseason action with Duke, too.
Here's The Athletic's Sam Vicenie on Zion's playmaking abilities, which include a better-than-expected handle and vision that hasn't been talked about at all before he got to Duke:
He’s a really good passer for a big man, again showcasing his ability to act as a point forward. He can pick out players on his team in transition on grab-and-gos, drive and kick out of slashes in the half-court, and pick out cutters from a standstill when out on the perimeter. His past as a guard shines here as well, as he constantly keeps his head up to look for others.
With just a quick flick of the wrist, he can generate bullet passes to his teammates to open them up for looks. He plays an unselfish brand of basketball that should mix well with his teammates at Duke. He genuinely values getting his teammates involved. This variety of skills — the ability to get out on the break, create plays in the half-court, finish at an elite level, play inside and out, and make plays for his teammates — makes him incredibly valuable.
Zion Williamson is coming to a gym near you, and his brief foray into college basketball starts Tuesday night. It's must-see TV.