Zion Williamson: Role
Historically elite leaper
Incredibly strong frame
Elite above the rim finisher
Strong ball-handling & passing for position
Regularly makes high impact plays as a defensive free safety
Terrible shooting mechanics
Height and length underwhelming for position
Motor is inconsistent
Offensive Role at Duke
During his only season at Duke, Zion Williamson has made his impact primarily in three areas: in transition, on the offensive boards, and attacking the rim in every possible way. In transition he is extremely effective at initiating the break both with strong outlet passing and the ability to grab a defensive rebound and immediately push the ball up the court as a ball handler. He also does a great job filling lanes from either wing. His combination of volume and efficiency on the offensive boards is unparalleled in major conference basketball. He is simply too explosive for opponents to handle, elevating higher, faster and stronger than anyone else on the court. His finishing in the half court is notable not just for the extreme efficiency but also for the diversity of methods by which he finds his shots: cuts, post-ups, isolations, attacking closeouts, running pick-and-rolls, even the occasional off screen or hand off possession. In each case Synergy grades his efficiency as excellent, with the lone exception of attacking closeouts (average).
Offensive Role Projection -
You may have noticed that Duke rarely uses Zion as a roll man. Yet, that may be his most effective half court role long term. His strong frame, explosiveness and the interior gravity he generates makes this play type a natural fit for him. Moreover, he has the ball-handling ability to reverse the pick and roll when it makes sense tactically, using his explosive burst to cause defensive chaos. He will continue to make a significant impact in transition and on the offensive boards. Depending on how opposing teams match up with him he can feature other parts of skill set accordingly. Against bigger, slower players his isolation and face-up skills will prove extremely difficult to defend. Against smaller, quicker players his ability to seal in the deep post for lobs and to post-ups will be invaluable. Moreover, the gravity he generates will allow him to be a very effective off-ball screener at times when the primary action does not involve him.
Defensive Role at Duke
Duke plays an aggressive form of defense with a focus on ball denial and taking away the 3-point line, relying on superior athleticism to make high impact plays (No. 1 in both STL% and BLK%). Zion operates primarily as the 4 in this defense next to Marques Bolden or Javin DeLaurier, though he has played the 5 in limited doses. Duke relies on his speed and explosiveness to protect the rim as a weak side help defender and to switch across all five positions. He can lose track of his man off-ball at times, but possesses incredible closing speed that often prevents an open player from getting a good shot off. His strength and explosiveness are a necessity to close out possessions on the defensive boards. Duke 5s typically box out allowing Zion or a wing to grab the rebound and immediately initiate a transition attack.
Defensive Role Projection -
Zion’s best defensive position will likely be the 4, where his lack of height and length will have less impact and he will have a significant advantage in every other physical tool. Further, sharing the floor with another capable rim protector will enable him to roam as a free safety, making high impact plays all over the court. His ability to switch effectively on to any position will make life difficult for opposing offenses trying to run primary actions in his vicinity. Using him as the second layer of rim protection will help his team have an elite interior defense.
Zion is also capable of playing the 5 situationally, perhaps closing out games as the focal point of dynamic lineups. Though his height and length are lacking compared to most 5s, his broad frame, strength and low center of gravity can be unique assets at the position. Nobody will be capable of moving him off of spots, and he has quickness to consistently get there first. Learning to use this ability as a weapon in positional defense will be key to maintaining a high level team defense with him at the 5. He can, of course, elevate to block shots and protect the rim as well, but his lack of height can force him to commit early at times in the half court where timing is more difficult.
Why Zion Will Earn Minutes as a Rookie
Zion is a tremendous athlete that will put immense pressure on every interior defense in the NBA from day one. His high level ball-handling and passing skills will enable him to be used in many different ways, and his frame will make him a natural screen setter in the pick and roll heavy environment of the NBA. Defensively he will make impact plays immediately, though he will need to develop his sense of risk and reward to account for the higher level of talent and better execution of NBA teams.
Why Zion’s Minutes May Be Limited as a Rookie
The biggest question for Zion is whether he can maintain a high motor for 30+ minutes playing at an NBA pace. Duke’s fast-paced offense (equivalent to a pace of 95 in the NBA) helps alleviate some of those concerns. However, in high school and at Duke blowing out the opposition has been the norm, with close games sprinkled in occasionally. Any lottery team he ends up on will likely face uphill battles more often than not. If his motor remains inconsistent when the games are closer, perhaps taking possessions off defensively, he may end up riding the pine more often than expected. Still, it is difficult to envision any scenario where he does not play at least 28 minutes per game as a rookie.