NBA King of the Hill Tournament: Zion Williamson Already Deserves a Place Among the League’s Greats
Photo credit: David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Zion Williamson
You may have heard that the Action Network is on a quest to find the top 1-on-1 player in the NBA. So far our basketball experts — Matt Moore, Rob Perez, Justin Phan and Bryan Mears — have each ranked their 64-best individual hoopers (For more on their rankings and analysis, click here). On Thursday, we’ll unveil the official bracket, and on Saturday, we’ll start playing out the tournament on Twitter via NBA2K for the whole world to see.
The player that Bryan absolutely loves in the 1-on-1 format is rookie sensation Zion Williamson, who came in at No. 10 out of 64 in his rankings. He makes his case for Zion below.
“He hasn’t played even 20 games yet.”
That’s the main argument I’ve gotten since I put Zion Williamson in my personal top-10 list for the best 1-on-1 players in the NBA.
Experience certainly matters: Repetition helps players become comfortable with their go-to moves. There are nuances in the game, like minor momentum shifts, that you learn only with time. And, of course, we know experience matters because aging curves typically peak around 27-29.
Zion is just 19 years old.
A similar argument has been made for Luka Doncic over the past two seasons. It wasn’t until this season that everyone really bought in it seems. Young players can’t be that good that fast, right?
Generally no, but Luka isn’t a regular young player. Neither is Zion. They’re both outliers — and as a rule, we’re really bad as humans at predicting and adjusting to major outliers. In general, teenagers aren’t top-15 players in the world. But we aren’t worried about general players or median outcomes — we’re talking about prodigies. And Zion seems to be one already.
And it’s not really about his on-court play through 19 games in the league with the Pelicans, although it has been outstanding. It’s more about just how different he is compared to other players we’ve ever seen. I can’t find the exact quote, but a smart writer at The Stepien, and NBA draft blog, wrote about how we have trouble predicting players who are their own archetype.
Think Stephen Curry and LeBron James, sure. But not many people doubted them. Instead think of someone like Draymond Green, who was drafted in the second round because drafters couldn’t imagine a player like him — because there hadn’t ever been a player like him. As opposed to valuing that uniqueness, drafters maligned it. “If it’s never worked before, why would it now?”
Like Curry and LeBron, no one is doubting Zion or Luka. But I do think we are perhaps underestimating at just how steep their curve to stardom could be early on. People likely thought they would be top-20 or even top-10 players at some points in their career, but likely very few thought it would happen in the first 2-3 years.
Anyway, let’s get to the argument at hand. In a theoretical 1-on-1 tournament, Zion is absolutely a top-10 competitor. And the reason is that his strengths are just so darn strong. In that setting, as I argued yesterday, you need versatility, length, strength and diversity of skillset. Zion fits that perfectly: He might be the strongest player in the league already, and he’s like Charles Barkley in that he’s essentially a creating center.
The knock on him is going to be defense, but I think that’s overstated. Does he have the on-ball defensive skills of Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo? Definitely not, partly because that’s one thing that’ll take time to develop. But he’s also not at a physical advantage against any player he’d hypothetically face, and that’s one of the most valuable qualities in a tournament.
Take Trae Young, who is also young and has definably crazy strengths. He’s at such a disadvantage against any wing or center. Joel Embiid fits into this camp as well. He’s at a disadvantage against faster players, especially wings and bigger guards. Only a handful of players — Zion, Kawhi, Giannis, LeBron and Ben Simmons — have few weaknesses.
Against a guard, Zion isn’t losing. In what world is Kyrie Irving stopping Zion from scoring a layup on any possession? Kyrie is more likely to leave due to an injury rather than win against Zion.
And against the bigs, he can at least somewhat defend them given his girth, and he has the same quickness advantage a guard does. Against the wings, he has the physicality to bully just about anyone, and he might be the most athletic human we’ve ever seen.
If we ran this tournament and rankings three years from now, Zion is a no-brainer top-three pick. Sure, part of that is he’ll improve. But most of it is because we’ll have caught on to the fact that he’s an utter outlier and doesn’t fit with any archetype we’ve ever seen.
Call me crazy, but I’m taking Zion 1-on-1 against nearly any player in the world. Right now.