What are the Pelicans getting in Zion Williamson? NBA scouts believe reality doesn't match the hype ... yet
Zion's elite defense, athleticism and motor give him a high floor, but reaching his ceiling will depend on skill development
The New Orleans Pelicans came out of nowhere to claim the No. 1 overall pick in Tuesday night's lottery order revealing, and they are almost certain to draft Zion Williamson out of Duke. If they don't draft him first, somebody else will, as that will mean the Pels have decided to move the rights to the No. 1 pick for a star player, perhaps as a way of convincing Anthony Davis to stay.
Either way, Zion is going No. 1.
So what are the Pelicans -- or in the very unlikely scenario of a trade, some other team -- getting in Williamson? That's a matter of debate among NBA talent evaluators. But one thing on which almost everyone agrees: Zion, despite all the hysteria stemming from his otherworldly athleticism, is not a perfect prospect.
"Far from it," a Western Conference scout told CBS Sports. "He's not a LeBron James or an Anthony Davis or, you know, a Hakeem Olajuwon. He's not that. He's like every other player in this draft, or really any draft. He's got things to work on. Some of them are big things. No, he's not a perfect prospect. Not by any stretch. But he's an NBA starter at worst."
Shooting is obviously the biggest concern. Zion is 6-foot-7 and will operate mostly as a perimeter player. Not being able to shoot at a consistent level is a problem in today's NBA.
"That will likely determine whether he becomes a franchise-level player," the same Western Conference scout told CBS Sports. "I think he can improve as a shooter. I hear great things about his work ethic. He's not the type of guy who's going to get in his own way by not addressing a weakness. He's going to do what he needs to do to get better."
Zion's shot isn't broken. We're not talking Ben Simmons here. He has a relatively low and slow release, but he shot a manageable 33 percent from the college three-point line, and if you leave him completely open he can knock a few in. This play below might be the best full spectrum of what Zion brings: He completely bricks a three, but has the motor to get back on the other end, make an athletic block, and then turn around and shoot another three, and make it this time, with confidence, the next possession.
First and foremost, that hustle you see in him getting back on defense, and that block, those are the two pillars of his game at this point. He's going to play hard as hell. And he's going to play defense at an elite level.
"That's what makes his chances of failure so low," an Eastern Conference scout said. "There's no way this guy isn't going to be a productive, core player in the league, just on those two things. Again, the skill development will be the key to him reaching his ceiling, so to speak, but his floor is so high just on how hard he plays and the defense, and obviously the athleticism. You can't teach jumping out of the gym, you know what I'm saying?"
To the scout's point, Zion, at just 6-foot-7 with less than a seven-foot wingspan, is en elite shot blocker because he has a 45-inch vertical leap, because he pursues blocks in a downright angry manner, and because in addition to that 45-inch vertical, he's what you would call a quick jumper, meaning he explodes off the ground in a blink. And man can he cover some ground. Look how far removed he is from this play as a help defender, and look how quickly and explosively he closes:
You want ground coverage? This is just silly:
Zion is in the middle of the key when that shooter first gets the ball, and he still gets out to block that shot. In the NBA, if you can simply get out to contest that shot, even halfway get a hand in the guy's face, you're doing elite work. But to block a jump shot? From that starting position? That's ridiculous. That's the work of the kid in eighth grade who's a foot taller than everyone else.
Here he does it again:
"And it's not just the shot blocking that makes him a great defender," the Western Conference scout added. "There are a few things I feel like you can't teach, and lateral movement, the ability to slide and stay with guys as a defender, is one of them. The other is that feel for the game. Zion is getting better in that area. I'll be honest, when I saw him at the McDonald's game, before he even went to Duke, he was dreadful. So he's much better than I ever thought he'd be in the first place. That speaks to his work ethic.
"But in terms of his defensive ability," the scout continued, "he can move side to side. He can stop and start. He can guard multiple positions, maybe even all the way one through five. He can pressure the ball. He has good instincts and that great range as a help defender. It's all there defensively, that you can be sure about."
To this point, look at Zion's work on the floor here as he retreats in transition, gets stopped in his tracks on a sick in-and-out move, and still is able to re-fire right back into full explosion and recover quickly enough to block the shot from behind:
You heard the scout talk about how Zion is a quick jumper; this is an example of that. He's not timing this block from behind in the form of the chase-down block we often see in transition these days. He's beat on this play, and the ball handler is trying to get this ball up on the glass as quickly as possible. Zion simply gets off the ground faster.
But this is also an example of Zion's on-ground explosion. To go from zero to a hundred like that, from a dead stop right back to full explosion in the snap of a finger, is truly elite stuff.
"That's why you have to be careful not to overcomplicate his evaluation, or pick him apart too much," the Eastern Conference scout said. "Does he have holes? Yes. Does he need to improve as a shooter? Yes. But offensively, he's a better passer than people think, and he's got great touch around the rim. He's a great finisher even when he's not dunking. I mean, at the end of the day, he's a freak. His physicality alone is going to separate him even in the NBA. He's just, abnormal. Is he LeBron James or Anthony Davis? No. But he's a really good player for sure, with a chance to be great."
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