By Des Bieler
Perhaps the most mind-boggling feat performed by Zion Williamson is that he’s somehow managed to exceed the considerable hype he generated as a human-highlight-reel high school player. It’s not just that the 6-foot-7, 285-pound forward has continued to throw down electrifying dunks at Duke, but he’s also demonstrated a well-rounded game that has, by general acclaim, made him the front-runner to be the No. 1 selection in June’s NBA draft.
In fact, at least one basketball Hall of Famer thinks that Williamson has proven all that he needed to at the college level and should begin making plans for the pros — immediately. That was the opinion offered Tuesday by Scottie Pippen, who said that if he were the Blue Devilsstar, he would “shut it down.”
“I would stop playing, because I feel that he could risk a major injury that could really hurt his career,” Pippen said on ESPN’s “The Jump.” The six-time NBA champion with the Bulls added of Williamson, “I think he’s definitely going to be the No. 1 pick.”
Williamson could have some cause to fear injury, as he was poked in the eye Saturday in a game against Florida State and crumpled to the court in pain, subsequently sitting out the second half with double vision. He recovered in time to play against Syracuse on Monday, and he posted a game-high 35 points with 10 rebounds even as his top-ranked team was stunned at home by the Orange, but Williamson also saw another reminder of the potential hazards of continuing his college career, as teammate Tre Jones suffered a major shoulder injury.
Jones, also a standout freshman, is out indefinitely with a separated AC joint, which actually qualifies as relatively good news for Duke fans, who feared a worse injury when he went out of Monday’s game. If Williamson were to call it a college career at this point, it would surely anger supporters of the Blue Devils, as well as millions of other college basketball fans who are eager to see what he can do for the rest of the season and in the NCAA tournament, but Pippen said, “I think he’s done enough for college basketball that it’s more about him personally.”
Pippen’s co-analyst Tuesday on “The Jump,” former NBA star Tracy McGrady, didn’t take issue with Pippen’s suggestion that Williamson should “shut it down” so much as with his partner’s claim that the identity of the draft’s No. 1 pick was no longer in doubt.
McGrady asked Pippen if the latter felt that way because Williamson is “the best player, or because he’s the most exciting player, and he has the machine behind him, pumping him every day.” Pippen replied, “I think it’s a lot of both.”
“You think he’s the best player in the draft? He’s not the best player on his team,” McGrady asserted. “I think RJ Barrett is a better player.”
Barrett came to Duke as a slightly more highly regarded prospect than Williamson, in the view of many analysts, and he has more than held his own, averaging a team-leading 23.4 points, compared to Williamson’s 21.2, with 6.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 0.9 steals. The latter, though, leads the Blue Devils with 9.6 rebounds, adding 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.9 blocks, and his player efficiency rating is an off-the-charts 41.6 — Barrett is next on the team at 24.4.
In fact, among all Division I players, Williamson’s PER leads by a wide margin (per Basketball Reference), with Wofford’s Cameron Jackson next at 37.5 and Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke third at 36.4. Among other advanced metrics, Williamson is also tops in win shares per 40 minutes (at .373, with another steep drop to second), offensive box plus/minus (12.2) and overall box plus/minus (20.1).
Esoteric statistics aside, Williamson’s awe-inspiring athleticism would be sorely missed by college fans if he were to stop playing for Duke, and fortunately for them he’s given no public indications of planning to do so. McGrady, though, cited the example set by star college football players in recent years, increasing numbers of whom have skipped their teams’ bowl games to focus on the NFL draft and protect themselves from possible injuries.
McGrady also would not go so far as to declare that, if he had the No. 1 pick, he would actually take Barrett over Williamson. “It’s about filling the seats,” he said. “Zion Williamson is more exciting — he will fill the seats.”