Stuckey: Could Zion Williamson Really Be Worth 7 Points to the Spread?

Mar 14, 2019 03:45 PM EDT
Credit:

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Zion Williamson

  • Duke's Zion Williamson will return against Syracuse on Thursday night in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals.
  • We all know Zion was having a historically great season before injuring his knee, but how much is he worth to the spread?

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 23. Williamson is set to return on Thursday night in the ACC Tournament against Syracuse.

Duke fans (and futures holders) let out a collective sigh of relief when news broke that Zion Williamson only had a minor knee injury and would not miss any extended time. As a result, we didn’t see any material shift in the national championship futures market.

However, Zion is still listed as day-to-day and was ruled out for Duke’s rematch with Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on Saturday night.

That begs the question: how much is Zion Williamson worth to the spread? Could one player really be worth a touchdown in college basketball? And could he be worth double digits against Syracuse?

I can’t believe I’m even posing that question, which sounds insane on the surface. But I’ve never seen anybody have this much impact at the college level. Thinking Williamson is worth 6-7 points might not be as crazy as it sounds.

While I’m constantly tweaking his rating, I personally have Zion worth 6.5 points to the spread right now.

Since that is such an unbelievably massive number for a basketball player, I wanted to get the opinion of others I respect in the betting market.

I checked in with a few professional bettors, who said around 5-6 points.

I also reached out to Jay Kornegay from the SuperBook at Westgate, who answered “He’s worth 5 points.” And when I mentioned I make him worth 6-7, Jay responded, “that’s a big number for one hoops player.”

And I agree! It’s insane. But the numbers are staggering.

The Drop-off

As we saw in the UNC loss, the drop-off from Zion to Jack White or Jared DeLaurier is enormous. With Zion on the court, Duke shoots 50% as a team. Without him? 42%. Prior to the UNC game, Duke was scoring 16 more points per 40 minutes with Zion on the floor. SIXTEEN!

We are talking about a player with a 41.9 PER (Player Efficiency Rating). That’s the highest single-season PER over the past 10 years. Before this season, Kelly Olynyk was second at 34.2.

And if you focus on the discrepancy between Zion’s production and who backs him up, it becomes even clearer how big of a monster Zion really is relative to the other options.

Let’s take a look at Duke’s primary contributors and focus on the aforementioned PER — in addition to Offensive Box Plus/Minus from Basketball Reference (an estimate of the offensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team):

Now, I don’t think these backups are as bad as they’ve been playing. For example, Jack White has missed 25 consecutive three-pointers but was shooting 40% from deep before that. So, while some of the underlying raw metrics suggest Zion is worth double digits to the spread, I don’t think it’s quite that drastic (there are also sample size constraints and other factors that play a part).

However, that doesn’t diminish the fact that the drop-off is still monumental.

I like to think of Zion as an elite quarterback with a poor backup. And I didn’t even get to the defensive side of the ball, where Duke is clearly significantly superior with Zion on the floor.

Is Zion Worth Even More Against Syracuse?

I think so. Syracuse runs its vaunted 2-3 zone 93% of the time — the second-highest percentage in the country, trailing only Washington (led by long-time Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins).

Well, as you might imagine, Duke has not fared well against zone defenses this year. The Blue Devils simply can’t shoot. They are ranked 322nd in the nation in 3-point percentage at 30.6%, and have been even worse in conference play at 29.2% (only Wake Forest ranks lower in the ACC).

Just take a look at these points per possession numbers/percentiles, per Synergy Sports:

Duke is obviously elite in transition and it also thrives in the half court against man defenses, which you might expect for a roster littered with NBA talent.

However, the zone numbers are troubling, especially when you look at Zion’s PPP splits. Just as good, if not better, against zone.

His overall PPP number ranks second nationally behind Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke (min. 250 possessions). And he has dominated against any scheme.

But that makes Duke’s overall zone offense numbers even more worrisome without Zion — who shoots a gaudy 66.7% against zones. The rest of the team combined? 35.8%!

It’s not like Duke will be facing just any zone, either. Syracuse only allows .77 points per possession when in zone, which ranks in the top 25 nationally.

If you assume Duke should be about a 10-point favorite at Syracuse when both teams are fully healthy, I think Duke should open as a 2-3 point favorite. Yes, I truly believe Zion is worth 7-8 points in this particular matchup.

However, I think the market might undervalue how much he is really worth since it is so unprecedented. We might see a 5-6, which would make Syracuse a play.

Situationally Speaking

With that said, this is a great situational spot for Duke.

The Blue Devils are coming off a blowout loss to UNC with revenge from a home loss to Syracuse earlier this season. Meanwhile, Syracuse just absolutely dominated Louisville at home. There are also questions surrounding head coach Jim Boeheim and the car accident he got in this week.

But that does not take away from the fact that this is just a horrid matchup for Coach K and Co. Zion’s loss can not be overestimated, especially against a defense that almost exclusively runs zone.

Now, Duke could shoot the lights out as it did vs. Virginia and all of this would be moot, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Even if Jack White is the most overdue man in America right now.

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