Social media made Zion Williamson a household name before he ever put on a Duke jersey, but beyond the hype were some legitimate questions about how his game would translate at the next level. How limited would he be by the lack of a reliable jump shot? How would he carry his unprecedented 285-pound frame? And though his man-child highlights looked incredible against overmatched high schoolers, would they continue to work in college?
It was going to be impossible for Williamson to answer everything during Duke’s three-game preseason trip to Canada, but his performance still provided the first glimpse of what to realistically expect out of him this season. Make no mistake: Williamson is going to be the biggest thing in the sport all year, and perhaps one of the biggest college stars of the decade.
Williamson’s numbers on the trip were fantastic, averaging 29.7 points and 11.3 rebounds per game on 64.5 percent shooting from the field. He even made 3-of-9 attempts from three-point range. For as impressive as that is, raw numbers will never fully do his game justice. Williamson is so breathtaking to watch and plays such a unique game that he is going to turn every Duke game into a spectacle all season.
Indeed, we’re already approaching strictly first-name basis here. This is the year of Zion.
Zion’s athleticism is stunning. It’s functional, too
Williamson didn’t become a social media sensation on accident. He’s one of the most incredible raw athletes you will ever see on a basketball court, hurling that massive 285-pound frame around with a jaw-dropping combination of power and speed.
Williamson’s athleticism doesn’t just look good on viral videos, he also leverages it in functional ways as the basis of his game.
I think it’s safe to say nobody is stopping Zion Williamson at the rim pic.twitter.com/A7xcReIggO— Sports Provider (@SportsProvider_) August 18, 2018
This is Williamson taking two dribbles to the left, launching himself around two defenders (and avoiding a charge) with a Barry Sanders-like jump cut, and then still having enough power to emphatically finish with a dunk. There are not many basketball players alive who could combine force and agility like this.
Take another play that’s just as impressive:
Zion's second jump though pic.twitter.com/rrcObfQ5aS— ESPN (@espn) August 19, 2018
An in-and-out dribble with his off-hand breaks down the initial defender. He showcases his body control to get to the rim through traffic. And though he misses the layup, he’s able to time an insanely quick second jump for a put-back dunk.
Williamson is jumping twice before anyone else can jump once. There is simply no way to stop this.
He has guard skills, too
We knew Williamson was a historic athlete. What might surprise some people is how comfortable he is with the ball in his hands, initiating the Duke offense like a lead guard on halfcourt sets.
Hot take: It’s almost as much fun to watch Williamson pass as it is to watch him dunk.
That’s a great display of court vision. Williamson doesn’t just put his head down and force his way to the basket, he sees the floor well and is a ready and willing passer.
How about this look to teammate R.J. Barrett?
His sense of awareness and basketball IQ is also on display during this pass for a wide-open corner three. Oh yeah, he’s also a monster rebounder when the shot doesn’t go in.
What a possession from Zion here. Excellent vision, wonderful pass to the weak-side corner. Pretty ridiculous one-handed rebound and stick-back, too. pic.twitter.com/mIsPI4P5cm— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) August 16, 2018
Perhaps the most striking thing about Williamson’s performance in Canada was his feel for the game. Someone with his physicality could get away with simply trying to overpower the man in front of him. He’ll do that at times, but he picks his spots.
He simply knows how to play the game with a sense of composure and awareness that extends far beyond his 18 years.
Zion just gets the ball
It’s Zion Williamson’s basketball. He’s going to take it from you and he’s not going to give it back.
The alley-oop will get the attention there, but it only happened because Williamson disrupted the play on defense with before kick starting the break.
Williamson’s defense will be under a microscope this year, especially in terms of his ability to stay with offensive players at the point of attack and switch screens. It’s too soon to make any judgment about that, but we can already say one thing safely: This is a player with a real nose for the ball who is going to get into the passing lanes, hound ball handlers when given the opportunity, and turn defense into offense in an instant.
Here’s Williamson tracking a rebound and making a high-IQ touch pass for an assist.
Williamson is going to be an aggressive rebounder at both ends. He’s so good at following the ball in the air and grabbing it at its highest point. How many other players can really put rebounding on their highlight reel? Williamson can.
I would watch an entire highlight reel of Zion rebounding pic.twitter.com/SUexxOt3hi— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) August 16, 2018
A player like Andrew Wiggins is a preternaturally gifted athlete, too, but he never has showcased a nose for the ball like Williamson. This is someone you want to play with.
Zion is going to be so effective in transition
This highlight can speak for itself.
Barrett ➡️ Zion.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 19, 2018
The freshman duo is dominating on ESPN+ pic.twitter.com/OgTZSPjaMr
It’s so much fun to watch Williamson turn on the jets and race down court for the easy lob. Good luck stopping a 285-pound tank from finishing that play.
Williamson isn’t just all raw power, though. There’s also an impressive amount of grace to his game. He already has the agility and footwork to pull off a Eurostep, like this.
Williamson plays so hard and is so fluid in the open the court that he’s going to be immediately dominant in transition. No one is stopping him in the open floor.
Zion is a compelling interview, too
Williamson is an engaging speaker on camera. He has the type of personality that’s only going to amplify his celebrity status.
It’s possible that Williamson is the third player drafted on his own college team this year, after Barrett and Cam Reddish. That’s just how loaded Duke is this season. One thing is clear, though: No one will be getting more attention than Williamson. He’s already a star.