Beware of Zion Mania
The New Orleans Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery last week — one of the most exciting moments in the history of the franchise.
Fans around the state are reenergized about the sport after recent struggles on the floor and all of the drama off it — namely surrounding Dell Demps’ firing, Anthony Davis’ ongoing trade request and questions about the team’s future roster.
The timing of the Pelicans’ lottery win couldn’t be better. This year’s draft was more highly anticipated than others in recent memory because of Duke standout post Zion Williamson, who is considered by many to be a consensus No. 1 pick.
But I say the Pelicans should proceed with caution.
Sure, there’s all the hysteria and fanfare around Williamson. But I watched about 20 Duke games last season and I watch a disgusting amount of NBA each year (more than I’d like to admit). I’m not sure that this kid is going to roll off the bus and onto the professional level and dominate. To me, there are a lot of questions about Williamson that still need to be answered.
Let’s start with a philosophical question — his position.
Williamson is a hybrid power forward who acts more like a center on the floor in terms of how he plays.
Most of his points come inside the paint and his biggest attribute is his ability to play well above the rim and throw down vicious, rim-rocking slam dunks.
So, philosophically, I wonder — do any of those things even matter anymore in the NBA?
I’m not sure if I want post players anymore — at least not ones I’m building my team around. The game has drastically changed in the past decade and the teams that win are the teams with the best guard play.
The Final Four teams in the NBA are the Golden State Warriors, the Portland Trailblazers, the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks.
If asked to list the best two players on those teams, literally almost every, single answer would be a player who is a point guard, shooting guard or small forward.
I’m not sure post players translate to wins anymore in the NBA, so for that reason alone, I’m questioning whether I take Zion No. 1 or whether I take Ja Morant from Murray State — the flashy combo guard who plays a little like a hybrid of Steph Curry and Chris Paul at the college ranks.
I think that style translates to wins in the NBA today. I’m not sure post players do. It is what it is.
The exception to that, of course, is Giannis Antetokounmpo — the hybrid power forward for the Bucks who is dominating the league right now with his size, athleticism and skill.
But that brings up another real question about Williamson’s future — his size, or lack thereof.
Giannis is 6-foot, 11-inches. Zion is five inches shorter than that.
Giannis has a 7-foot, 3-inch wingspan. Zion’s is just 6-foot, 10-inches.
By comparison, that’s one inch smaller than James Harden’s 6-foot, 11-inch wingspan.
Harden is a point guard. Zion is a power forward and hybrid center.
Would you draft James Harden tomorrow and trust him to be your lock-down rim protector in the paint defensively? Would you trust him to be able to bother guards on switches with his length?
Of course, not, right?
So why are we anointing Zion and asking him to do the same thing and are thinking that he’s a can’t-miss prospect?
That lack of height and size worries me about Zion’s future. At 6-feet, 6-inches, can he consistently score over height? Can he shoot well enough for teams to avoid sagging off him?
These are all very real questions.
I think back to the 2008 NBA Draft when the Chicago Bulls took Derrick Rose No. 1 — somewhat of a no-brainer. But Kansas State power forward Michael Beasley went No. 2 and had a less than stellar pro career.
You may be saying to yourself, “Casey, how dare you compare Zion Williamson to Michael Beasley.” But to those people, I say, “Hear me out.”
Williamson averaged averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.8 blocks per game for Duke. He shot 68 percent from the field and shot 33 percent from behind the 3-point line.
He was heavily dependent on 2-pointers (dunks), scoring 8.2 of his 9.0 field goals per game from inside the stripe.
We forget that Beasley was the same type of phenom. He averaged 26.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.6 blocks per game at Kansas State.
He shot 53.2 percent from the field (mid-range jumpers), 37.9 percent from 3 and got 8.2 of his 9.3 field goals per game from inside the stripe.
But Beasley’s lack of size cost him at the next level. He struggled to defend and his method of scoring became inefficient.
I fear the same could happen to Zion.
Take Morant, New Orleans.
He’s the best guard in the draft — by far — at a time when guards are needed to win games.
No disrespect to the hype and the hysteria, but give me the guy who has a chance to be the next Curry over the guy who may be the next Blake Griffin.
Or trade the pick — that works, too.
Pawn it off on some other poor, innocent team who has sipped the Kool Aid. •
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