Enter Zion

Like my NFL Mock Draft, I just had too much to say about the No.1 overall selection in this year’s NBA Draft.  Throw in the Anthony Davis trade that occurred Saturday night and we’ve got a separate column.

No.1, New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson, Duke

When my friends were showing me Twitter and Instagram highlights of Zion Williamson’s dunks in the spring of 2018, I was like “Cool.”

“What does he do on the court?”, I would ask.  “Can I see him do something else rather than dunk?”

Crickets.  No one said anything.  No one talked about anything but the dunks.  I wasn’t going to buy in like everyone else.  Yet.

Well, that check has been cashed.

From the very first Duke game, the answer to my question was clear.  “OH, SO THAT’S WHAT HE DOES ON THE BASKETBALL COURT” was the first note in my 15 page scouting document.

Zion could literally do everything.  He did everything this season.  He could isolate anyone and go to the rim on them.  Pull-up in the mid-range on them.  Occasionally hit a three on them.  He could come off screens and hit shots.  He set vicious screens.  He was prominent in the pick-and-roll, as a ball-handler AND a screener.  He was a lead ball-handler, legitimately playing point guard for long stretches of time.  He tried defensively.  He guarded anyone 1-5 and hardly struggled.  He switched effectively because of the athleticism.  He protected the rim.  Blocked shots.  Ran the offense and conducted the defense.

Zion did everything.  That’s why he is the best player to enter the NBA since LeBron James.  This is the best prospect since the King.  I’m not even sure it’s close.  Some scouts and outlets have Anthony Davis ranked ahead of him; that’s fair but a bit of a reach in my mind.  He’s far and away better than Luka Doncic or Kevin Durant.  He’s the clear No.2 behind LeBron.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some concerns.  None are major, though.

Despite that his first shot ever made at Duke was a three pointer, the three-pointer was not something he excelled at.  It went in 33.8% of the time, an okay clip especially for college.  But that’s borderline effective in the NBA; no one’s treating you real seriously out there at that percentage.  Still, Zion’s three-point percentage felt higher than that 33.8% mark.  Every time he shot one you expected it to go in, and when it did, it literally felt like you were watching one of the greatest players ever.

I believe Zion can fix it and get the percentage up.  Again, 33% is not horrific; it’s actually a pretty good start.  He gets little lift on his jump-shot, and his left elbow sticks out funny in his shooting motion.  With some quirks, Zion can easily manifest into a very good three point shooter, and fast.

Another slight concern is some of his defensive habits.  Though an excellent all-around defender as I mentioned above, Zion showed moments of trying to go for the big play on the defensive end.  He would purposely let guys go by him, and chase them down just to block their shot.  Guys are too athletic in the NBA to get packed like that every time.  With his size, you also wonder about the switchability onto quicker players.  That doesn’t at all negate the fact that someone of Zion’s size is able to stay on the court and guard 3-5 with ease.  It’s insane he’s as switchable as he is given his size.

And then there was the injury against North Carolina, which triggered a bizarre conversation about whether Zion’s size made him too susceptible to injuries when the injury itself was caused by nothing Zion did but what his Nike shoe did.  Most of the injury concern with Zion is I believe due to the fact that we’ve seen no one at this size do the things he does, and that leads people to wonder whether it’s actually possible or sustainable for him to do that at a NBA level.  You can’t project injuries, so let’s just not do it.

As for Zion’s fit, New Orleans just happened to be the team that landed him.  He doesn’t not fit anywhere; every team would love to have Zion and would be able to use him no matter what their roster construction is.

Roster construction is an interesting topic post-AD trade.  The Pelicans landed three solid young players in addition to the bevy of draft picks from the Lakers.  Whether they keep all of those assets remains to be seen.

The situation in New Orleans isn’t as good as I thought it’d be.  The Pelicans got back 110 cents on the dollar like they should have for one of the league’s ten best players and perhaps one of the 50 best players of all-time.  As I wrote in February, you have to overpay for guys like that, and you don’t take a discount if you’re New Orleans.  You play the hardest ball you can.

They did that in terms of value and got it, but I question whether it was the right value.  With Zion, it’s go-time.  There’s no building.  There’s no “We need to develop this young core.”  Zion is ready and developed.  He’s the type of guy where he’ll likely be one of the 30 best players in the league immediately, and could have a team in the playoffs as early as his rookie year.  We’re looking at a LeBron-level impact here, so why did New Orleans trade for other young players?

One, the Lakers didn’t have anything else to offer.  There was no way they were giving up more draft picks than they already did, and LeBron obviously wasn’t going to be shipped straight up for Davis.  Two, and there’s been reports of this, they can easily flip the young guys acquired into something else.  Whether that’d be Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram or the No.4 overall pick (I keep Josh Hart out the three players; he’s at least a solid wing/defender and shooter.  I still don’t know exactly what Ball and Ingram bring), the Pelicans can use those assets to bring in win-now, veterans players to help make this roster a title contender next season.  There’s no sense in having Jrue Holiday play with all of these guys; by the time you’re ready to contend (and IF you’re ever going to with an Ingram/Ball core), he might be past his prime and less effective.

The Pelicans need to treat Zion like a veteran, even though he’s 13 days older than me (Yup, you read that correctly.  I’m a little freaked out too); like someone who can be the best player on a championship team.  Because that’s what he is.  Right now.  Already.  He’s the best player on a championship team.  Despite winning the trade, the Pelicans don’t have that team around him right now.  You have a window with him and you have to let the light in.

For the Lakers, the Davis trade was a dream-come-true even with the price they paid.  In what was starting to become inevitable for weeks, the Lakers got the guy they oh-so-desperatly tried to get in February, and decided to stop being cheap and pay up.  That’s essentially what this came down too.  New management on the Pelicans side of things, less incompetence (That’s not to say Rob Pelinka is competent, but I think I trust just him more than I trust him and Magic together or Magic by himself) and a renounced sense of urgency (Due to some free agent rumors) on the Lakers side of things got this deal done.  The Lakers traded the right players away (Except Hart; would have been nice if they kept him around) but had to pay a massive price to make up for it.  With that, they get LeBron and AD together, with Kyle Kuzma as an underrated scorer from the wing and now have something that can attract free agents.  They need a point guard and some more wings who play well off of LeBron, but the Lakers could manifest into a title contender quite quickly.

The giving up of the picks had to be done.  It will be terrible when the picks start actually getting sent off and used by the Pelicans, but the Lakers are making the bet that those tough years will follow success and glory.  They’re making the bet that it will be worth it.  LeBron and AD with a solid point guard and decent wings is a dang good team.  LeBron, AD and a big free agent signing is probably the best team in the league.  That’s a bet that should pay off.