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Zion Williamson’s best skill is actually his defense

The Duke star’s defense is even better than his dunking.

There’s a template for the type of Zion Williamson highlight that’s supposed to go viral. It starts with the ball in his hands as he launches his 285-pound frame into orbit to attack the rim. Williamson will dunk with one hand or with two, sometimes with the aide of a runway, other times by generating unprecedented power from a standstill. If he’s feeling generous, he’ll add a windmill or a 360 in for good measure as a nation gawks in awe.

It’s dunking that put Williamson on SportsCenter and had Drake wearing his jersey well before he graduated high school. But his freshman season at Duke has taught us that many of his best highlights actually come on the defensive end.

This was illuminated against Virginia, when the Williamson play all over the internet didn’t involve him putting anyone on a poster. Instead, Duke’s billionaire-in-waiting brought the basketball world to a halt with a block.

A couple weeks earlier against Notre Dame, Williamson’s most viral play showed him sliding his feet to stay with a guard before swatting his shot:

Applying ball pressure on the perimeter isn’t going to get you millions of Instagram followers, and playing stout post defense won’t put you on SportsCenter. But as the world remains consumed with Williamson’s brilliant dunking ability, his potential on the other end of the floor is what really makes him special.

Sure, watching Williamson dunk is cool, but have you ever seen him defend?

Let’s go back to that block vs. Virginia for a second. The one that started like this:

And ended like this:

This was Williamson’s outrageous leaping on full display, but it also showed his ability to rotate and close out. It’s proof of how his athleticism is manifested functionally within the flow of the game, from the speed it took to get to the corner to the never-die motor that led him to believe he was capable of making a play this ambitious in the first place.

To watch Williamson defend is to see his unprecedented physical tools leveraged to make plays few others would think about attempting. Even something as routine as an entry pass into the post isn’t safe with Williamson on your man:

If Williamson has a fault defensively, it’s he may take these gambles too often. Williamson sees every cross-court pass as an opportunity to turn defense into offense, and Duke will get burned for that occasionally. But more often than not, his aggressiveness leads to big plays and even bigger swings in momentum.

Your inbounds pass is in jeopardy with Williamson on the court:

Your dribble isn’t secure, either. When he decides he’s coming for the trap, it typically leads to two points the other way:

In short spaces, the quick-twitch reactivity Williamson harbors within that mountainous frame takes on a new meaning. He’s able to guard the post because of the low center of gravity and immense strength he has at 285 pounds, but he’s also incredibly nimble for someone with his size, which allows him to stick with guards.

This is the basis of Williamson’s defensive versatility: the idea that he can guard four or even five positions at the NBA level. What he lacks in height (6’6) and length (6’10 wingspan), he makes up for tenacity, focus, and anticipation.

Virginia’s Kyle Guy is one of the better guards in the country, but he couldn’t get a three off against Williamson when he switched a screen at the top of the key:

Williamson’s defensive impact is demonstrated in both team and individual metrics. A year ago, Mike Krzyzewski had to switch to a zone defense because his freshman-laden superteam couldn’t handle simple man-to-man. That hasn’t been a problem this season. With long, rangey wings in Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish replacing the trio of Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., and Trevon Duval, Duke now plays a terrifying brand of man-to-man and currently ranks No. 4 in the country in points allowed per 100 possessions.

Putting a wrecking ball like Williamson in the middle is a big reason why. His big-play capability on the defensive end is unmatched. Block rate and steal rate have a long history of accurately projecting a player’s NBA potential, because they are a way to measure athleticism and defensive potential. Here’s how his block and steal rate match up to the rest of this year’s projected lottery picks:

Stocks report

Player Block rate Steal rate STOCKS
Player Block rate Steal rate STOCKS
Zion Williamson 6.6 4.2 10.8
R.J. Barrett 1.2 1.5 2.7
Cam Reddish 1.5 4 5.5
Ja Morant 1.6 2.7 3.3
Romeo Langford 2.6 1.5 3.1
Jarrett Culver 1.5 2.3 3.8
Nassir Little 3.5 1.6 5.1

Williamson doubles everyone else.

Even when you compared him to last year’s center-heavy draft class, his production remains a marvel. His block rate is higher than DeAndre Ayton’s (6.1), last year’s No. 1 pick who is as traditional as big men come these days. Only Jaren Jackson Jr. and Mohamed Bamba beat him in Stocks, off the strength of massive block rates supported by their enormous wingspans (7’4 and 7’10 wingspan, respectively).

A block isn’t just a block coming from Williamson. It’s also a reminder that almost no one in the world is competing on an even playing field with him physically. A steal means we’re in for a show the other way.

Williamson has captivated the country with his impossible combination of size, explosiveness, and agility. Those traits don’t just show when he’s soaring above the rim for a slam. In so many ways, Williamson’s athleticism is more impressive when its effect is less obvious.