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Jay Williams on Zion Williamson, LaMelo Ball, and the high school player who could compete in the NBA today

A Q&A with former Duke star Jay Williams.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN broadcaster and former Duke star Jay Williams spoke to SB Nation on behalf on the McDonald’s All-American Game this week. You can find the rosters for the game here. The 2019 McDonald’s All-American Game takes place on March 27, 2019 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.

There’s a lot of high school All-American games these days. The Nike Hoops Summit. The Jordan Brand Classic. Why is the McDonald’s Game still special?

It’s the McDonald’s All-American Game! There’s so much prestige behind it. It’s just in such high regard. I know there are a lot of other games, and this is said with all do respect, but when you look at the lineage of this game, that’s what excites me. There’s something about the past being associated with the future. When you look down t he list of names of people who have played in this game, from Magic Johnson to Isiah Thomas to LeBron James to Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter. The best of the best have all participated in this game.

From the kids’ perspective, and for myself, I was lucky to be named on the 40 Greatest McDonald’s All-American list — I don’t know how that happened, but I’m happy it did — it was the first moment I recognized that I actually had what it took to potentially get to that next level. Because as much as people tell you, this is a possibility, have you ever thought about the league, it wasn’t until I got that letter with that McDonald’s logo on it inviting me to the game to participate with the best of the best, that it confirmed the thought that I actually am seeing that light. I’m getting one step closer to accomplishing my dream of being a professional athlete.

What was it like for you to play in that game?

It was a moment of confirmation and validation for me. I had been hearing about Jonathan Bender, and Carlos Boozer, and Jason Gardner, and all those guys that we had as McDonald’s All-Americans in 1999, it wasn’t until I stepped on the court and played against them that it validated I really did belong here. That I had a chance to be pretty special if I kept working.

It was my first step into the national spotlight. It was my first time being on an interview with 50 cameras and reporters around him. It was my first time realizing this moment is my first step of the dream I always wanted to get a taste of. Now the journey really starts.

There are a lot of different opinions on who the best player in the country is this year. James Wiseman. Cole Anthony. Vernon Carey Jr. Anthony Edwards. Who do you think it is? Or who are you most excited to see?

I look at basketball the way you do. It’s all one vertical to me. I don’t really compartmentalize and put players in high school, college, or the pros. For everybody, it’s physically and mentally, where are you? How do you evolve? Where’s your game at?

I don’t want to get into who’s the No. 1 player. The player who is the most electrifying to me is Cole Anthony. I always joke with Greg, like man, this kid has all that extra stuff. And Greg had a lot of stuff to him, but Cole just has it. How competitive he is, the fire he plays with, his talent level, and just the way he approaches the game.

City Of Palms Classic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Vernon Carey is special, too. Same with Wiseman. I don’t want to take away from any of them. But I feel the player is most NBA ready right now is Cole.

I feel like Cole could come into any NBA team and compete. I would love to see Cole Anthony go against Russell Westbrook. I would love to see Cole Anthony go against Kyrie Irving. I’m not saying Cole is better than those guys, because he’s not currently. But wow, the upside he has and the way he plays right now, you would see a battle. He wouldn’t back down from that challenge. That mentality of Cole is what affects me about him the most.

Speaking of McDonald’s All-Americans, Duke has some good ones this year. Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones. It reminds me of your title winning team in 2001 with yourself, Boozer, Dunleavy and Battier. How do you think those two teams stack up?

Do you want me answer this with my analyst had or as Jay Williams?

I want you to answer it as Jay Williams.

I think they’re talented players. I don’t think they’d be able to compete with us.

I’m always going to say that because I’m competitive. I know who I was as a player. Now look, Zion and RJ and Cam and Tre are very, very special. I’m not sure if Tre would have guarded me or if they would have put a taller defender on me. But I know what I brought to the table. I know what kind of offensive sets we ran, with Shane Battier and I in the high screen. I know how Boozer is — him being a perennial All-Star. I know Dunleavy is 6’10.

If it was our freshman year, I don’t know how it would be. We obviously had another year of maturity our sophomore year, the season you’re asking about. We had another year to learn how to play. What these guys are doing right now as freshmen is ridiculous. I don’t know if we could have done that right out of the gate our freshmen year. But I think our sophomore year, once we matured, we were at a different level than this team. Again, they are freshmen, we were sophomores.

It seems like Zion Williamson towers over the whole sport this year. What have your impressions been of him?

Look, Zion Williamson is Zion. Whenever you give somebody just one name, you know they’re doing something pretty spectacular. Think about one name people. Madonna. Prince. Zion. He’s in that category for what he’s brought to the sport.

We don’t see people who are 6’7 who weight 285 pounds that can dance on a bubble and not pop it. His dexterity and how nimble he is, his ability to finish over the top of people or underneath people with his footwork, we haven’t really seen an athlete like that maybe other than LeBron James. And you can make the argument that he’s more freakishly athletic than LeBron James.

R.J. Barrett has almost missed as many shots this season as Zion has taken. Can Duke win the national title if that continues to happen?

Yeah, because RJ is going to need to do that. RJ is the catalyst for that team offensively. Zion can attack the rim offensively in different ways, but when it comes down to it in half court offense, especially with Tre Jones out, Zion needs to be that penetrator who gets to the rim and creates shots. RJ is a volume shooter right now. Can he be more efficient? Yes. But right now, you need him to attack.

With Tre Jones coming back in to the picture, they need to get Cam Reddish to be more dynamic. He needs to be more than just a shooter. But if they continue to move in that different, with RJ not taking 30 shots per game, but maybe in the low 20s, this team has the all the talent in the world. There’s no team that’s more talented than Duke.

LaMelo Ball has said he wants to play big time college basketball at a school like Duke, UNC, Kansas or Kentucky. Should he be allowed to play? Do you want to see him in college basketball?

I want LaMelo to do whatever LaMelo wants to do. I think the amount of pressure on him creates a really fascinating situation.

For Lonzo, he was already established within the college basketball community. He was already on his way out for the draft. LiAngelo, I think you saw it affected him, granted he wasn’t the same quality of basketball player as Lonzo and LaMelo. I think Melo is supremely talented. His talent speaks for itself. I think his game still needs to evolve and mature.

One of the gifts and curses of coming to college basketball is that he’ll automatically be a target. He’ll be a target for networks to market and hype. There will be a lot of hysteria around him wherever he goes. The question is, at the age of 17, 16, he’s already put himself into that threshold of being a celebrity. Now, when your game starts to get broken down and criticized, how do you deal with that? It’s on a national level now, but it’s not being broken down every single night, like playing at Duke, UNC or UCLA will do.

I wonder how he’ll handle that psychologically. That’s where we’re at right now with this generation. We’re asking kids to grow up a lot quicker now. That’s a really tough position to be in. I think Melo is talented, but the hype around him is going to be challenging.

Most underrated NBA prospect in college today?

I think people are forgetting about Darius Garland because of the knee injury. He reminds me a little bit of CP3 with his understanding of the game. Darius has that. We won’t talk about him this year because he’s not going to play, but we’ll talk about him in the draft because of his ability to lead and make the game easier for other people, as long as he’s healthy.