Some years there’s a robust debate about the top pick in the NBA draft.
This isn’t one of those years. Zion Williamson didn’t go into his only college season as the presumptive top pick in the draft. That distinction belonged to his Duke teammate, classmate and roommate R.J. Barrett.
Barrett didn’t exactly play his way out of that top spot. But Williamson certainly played his way into it.
Barring an extinction-level event like an asteroid strike or an alien invasion, Williamson will become the fourth Duke player selected number one in the draft.
Art Heyman was the first pick in 1963 draft. Heyman had one solid season for the New York Knicks, two not-so-solid seasons, a three-year return to form in the ABA and then he was gone, his career over at 29, a victim of a bad back and too many burned bridges.
Elton Brand was next, 1999, picked by the Clippers. Brand became an all-star. Cleveland picked Kyrie Irving at the top of the 2011 draft and Irving has become a perennial all-star.
Irving is the only one of the quartet who was not consensus national player of the year at the collegiate level.
Since Irving Duke has had Jabari Parker (2014), Brandon Ingram (2016) and Marvin Bagley (2018) go second in the draft, Jahlil Okafor (2015) and Jayson Tatum (2017) picked third. Mike Krzyzewski has had 20 top-10 picks, a dozen of them top-3.
Think about that for a second. This will mark the sixth consecutive season Duke will have a top-three pick, likely two this season, with Barrett projected to go no lower than to the Knicks at number three.
Does being picked number one ensure a long and productive NBA career?
Not always. Heyman isn’t even close to being the biggest bust, not in a universe in which somebody thought it was a good idea to pick LaRue Martin, Michael Olowakandi, Kwame Brown or Anthony Bennett number one.
But those are the exceptions not the rule. Some of the greatest players in NBA history were the first pick in the NBA draft, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Elvin Hayes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan among them.
Of course those guys were older and more experienced than the underclassmen who populate the upper regions of today’s draft. We have to go back to Kenyon Martin in 2000 to find the last senior, indeed the last college upperclassman, to go number one in the draft.
That brings us to Zion Williamson. I had a chance to talk about Williamson with Chris Ekstrand, a long-time NBA talent evaluator.
Ekstrand is two thumbs up on Williamson.
First, let’s dispose of the comparisons, Williamson with Charles Barkley or Larry Johnson or, well anyone.
“He’s a unique talent,” Ekstrand said. “I’ve been watching college basketball for a long time and I’ve never seen anything like him before. People want to compare him with someone like Charles Barkley. Forget it. Zion is much longer, much quicker.”
Part of that is Williamson’s obvious blend of strength and quickness.
“His body just overwhelms people. Defenders bounce off him. He’s so quick and over-powering. “He’s so explosive and what he’s got to explode will be more than any other explosive player ever.”
But Ekstrand sees things that most of us don’t see.
“He doesn’t have the build of a typical basketball player. But it’s what he does with that body that sets him apart. It’s how high he gets that body off the ground but also how quickly he moves. He doesn’t have to gather himself. He gets off the ground in an eye-lash. He has such quick reactions. He’s up and putting the ball back in before the other guys are even off the floor.”
Ekstrand emphasizes that Williamson is far more than just a freak athlete.
“He has a great sense for the game. Not every great athlete has that. He reacts quickly and knows what he’s doing out there.”
Ekstrand expects Williamson to improve his three-point shooting.
“He’s receptive to coaching. There’s a joy about his work ethic. He wants to get better. He’ll get more reps in the gym than he could in college.
Ekstrand says Williamson could be more effective in the NBA then he was in college.
“He needs to play with guys who can spread the floor. He’ll be more open in the NBA game. The deeper three-point line opens up the floor and means the help defenders are further away. He’s a one-on-one guy. It’s a great time to be a one-on-one guy because the game is designed for you. If he has one defender to beat, I feel sorry for that guy.”
So, maybe find some time next NBA season to watch New Orleans and those helpless defenders on the other team.