When comparing the top NBA draft prospects to current and past NBA players, one thing has become abundantly clear, Zion Williamson is different than almost anyone that has played the game. For anyone that does not follow sports or has been living under a rock, Williamson is the 6’7″ 285 pound power forward at Duke that has dominated college basketball in his freshman season. At this point he is a lock to go number one overall in the NBA draft this June, and he could be in line to win the NCAA Player of the Year award. His blend of size and athleticism is something that is rarely seen on a human being, and this has led to Williamson mainly using his agility, vertical leap, and size to get shots off around the basket and in transition. The major knock on his game is his outside shot, which he doesn’t need to look for 3’s in college given how dominant he is around the basket, but this will have to improve if he wants to be a star in the NBA. When you add up these rare attributes, it becomes hard to attempt to find a player in the NBA currently, or from the past, that could accurately give you an idea of what the Duke freshman will look like at the next level. With that said, lets take a look at some of the closest comparisons that we have found.
Barkley is probably the most commonly used comparison to Williamson, mainly due to the fact that their games do have similar traits. Both players are undersized for the power forward position height wise, and prefer to do most of their work around the basket and in transition as opposed to relying on their outside shot. Where this starts to fall apart is the fact that Barkley is smaller than Zion. Depending on who you believe Barkley is anywhere from 6’6″ all the way down to 6’4″, and was officially listed at 242 pounds. Having 30 to 40 pounds on Barkley is just more reason that it makes no sense that Williamson can be at his weight and strength but still possess the kind of athleticism you would see from a much lighter player. Although Barkley was never a very good shooter in the NBA, the game itself in those days was not built around the three point shot the way that it is today, so it is tough to quantify how good of a shooter he could have become with more emphasis on it. Even if Barkley is not a perfect example of how Williamson can play at the next level, he is a player that Zion can look to see how he evolved as his pro career progressed.
The former Knicks and Hornets power forward is someone that immediately comes to mind when thinking of Williamson. Johnson was listed at 6’6″ and 250 pounds, which again shows the level of crazy athleticism that Williamson possesses given he is listed at 35 pounds above what Johnson was in the NBA. While Johnson did not have the same success as a player like Charles Barkley, they were similar in the way that they played. Using his athletic ability and strength was a key to Johnson’s game, and he was known for his dunking ability much like Zion. Johnson struggled with his shot to a degree, but again they were not taking the number of deep shots that the NBA currently has being hoisted up on a nightly basis. This comparison like the Barkley comparison is not an exact match due to Zion’s unique size and skill set but as far as the way that they play, Johnson had a similar style to Williamson.
Griffin has been floated around the internet the last couple of days as a possible NBA comparison to Zion. The first obvious flaw in this analysis is that Griffin is a few inches taller than Williamson, being listed at 6’10”. In addition to that, much like Barkley and Johnson, Griffin is listed at about 30 pounds lighter than Zion this season. Where this comparison can begin to make a little sense is the overall career arc that Griffin has had. Coming out of Oklahoma, Griffin was known as a high flying athlete with a limited offensive skill set once out of the paint. He athleticism was at a level where in the beginning of his career that he was able to put up numbers mainly from post play and transition basketball. The NBA changed around Griffin, and he saw his value to a franchise drop considerably as the perimeter game became more important, culminating with his trade from Los Angeles to Detroit. Griffin recognized this and has worked his way into a legitimate three point threat in his time with the Pistons. While Griffin is taller and lighter, Zion could look to how Griffin has improved his game to fit the modern NBA as a blueprint for improving his own game once he is on the floor with other elite athletes on a nightly basis.
As you can see, none of these players are fully comparable to Williamson, and that is a sign of how unique he truly is. If you are 6’7″ and 285 pounds, you are not supposed to be doing the things he is doing athletically. The best practice when trying to compare college players to current and former NBA players if that player has a unique skill set, is to pull pieces from each of their games that the college player has. Some players like Ja Morant and Russell Westbrook or RJ Barrett and Tracy Mcgrady just make sense to say this is what they can become, but this is obviously not an exact science with all players. We pulled pieces from NBA players that game that would make up the totality of Zion Williamson’s potential in the NBA:
Griffin has thrown down some of the most impressive dunks the game has ever seen, and is known as one of the best dunking big men of all time. Post injuries Griffin has moved his game out to the three point line, which could be the career arc that Williamson will have to take if the notion that his weight could lead to injury issues as a pro, comes to fruition.
Shooting Ability-Charles Barkley
This is the area that Williamson needs to work on the most in his game, so he could elevate this as his career goes on. Barkley was a 26.6% 3 point shooter in the NBA attempting 1.9 per game. Williamson is shooting 31.5% in his freshman season from deep, attempting the exact same 1.9 per game. With the NBA 3 point line being further out than in college, it would be safe to assume Williamson’s numbers would drop in the interim as he attempts to improve that part of his game. Larry Johnson for comparison shot 33.2% for his career attempting 1.6 shots per game.
Agility/Transition Game-Lebron James
Lebron is a player that gets compared to Williamson quite often, mainly due to the star power they bring and the highlight plays that occur when they step on the court. The similarities in their game and body type are not as close as some casual fans want to believe, but one aspect that does make sense is in their agility and abilities in the transition game. Williamson can grab a rebound over a bigger player, take off down the court passing other smaller players, finishing in style or with a big dunk. This sounds a lot like a typical Lebron James night in the NBA.
Defense is the forgotten skill at times, which does not lead to as much media attention as the dunks, but it could be the best part of Williamson’s game at the next level. He should be able to guard multiple positions, while his closing ability on blocks is impressive. Much like Blake Griffin, Gordon has a couple of inches on Williamson but they both are elite athletically, and have the lateral movement of a guard. The Magic forward has made his defense a priority since turning pro, which has led to him being the discussion to finish on an All-NBA Defense team this season. Williamson could have a similar impact, causing havoc on the perimeter guarding the ball, and protecting the rim. Being able to guard a teams best player night in and night out is something that will help Williamson impact games as he will no doubt be looking to his shooting when he gets to the league.
Attempting to compare Williamson to current and former players is no doubt an interesting exercise, and only time will tell what actually happens with his career. In the meantime, Williamson and Duke will take on North Dakota state Friday night at 7:10 on CBS to begin what they hope will be their national championship run. Enjoy it while it lasts, we might not see another player in college like Williamson for a very long time.