DURHAM, N.C. — Not much gets past Zion Williamson, the wondrous talent with an out-of-this-world following on social media.
And yet Williamson missed when Scottie Pippen cranked up the hype-o-meter to 11. Last week on ESPN’s “The Jump,” host Rachel Nichols asked Pippen: “Fill in the blank for me: Zion Williamson is the best NBA prospect since …”
“Michael Jordan,” he replied, stone-faced.
Wait, what? Past LeBron James?
“Yes, past LeBron,” Pippen said.
Fast-forward to Tuesday night, minutes after Williamson pulled down 17 rebounds in Duke’s 80-55 victory over Boston College.
When Williamson was asked about Pippen’s gushing, he said, “He said that?”
And then Williamson turned to his locker mate and sidekick, guard Mike Buckmire: “What do you think about that, bro?”
Williamson was speechless. Finally he said: “Best prospect since … 23? 45? Six rings?”
Yes, that Michael Jordan.
“Thank you, but I’ve got a long way before I can put myself in that category,” Williamson said. “Jordan is the greatest. He’s different, like … I appreciate the confidence (Pippen) sees in me. Just gives me something to work harder for.”
Hard work is subjective, but little else in Williamson’s game is. The freshman is the nation’s only player averaging 20-plus points while shooting better than 61 percent (an outrageous 68.2 percent). He’s also the only player with at least 40 steals,, blocks and dunks.
Williamson won’t turn 19 until July but already has 2.3 million Instagram followers and practically co-stars with ESPN anchors such as Scott Van Pelt and Mike Greenberg on nights and mornings after Duke games.
Everyone in basketball watches the highlights and attempts to make comparisons. Is the 6-foot-7, 285-pounder most like Charles Barkley? Larry Johnson? Shawn Kemp?
“I want to say Charles Barkley, but I feel like that’s an understatement,” said Wendell Carter Jr., the Chicago Bulls rookie who played at Duke last season. “With him being so large and so agile at the same time, it’s very, very rare.”
Said Bulls teammate Zach LaVine: “That dude is a franchise-changer. He can jump like me, but he looks like an outside linebacker. He’s a freak of nature. Dude will change a franchise.”
The public, not to mention Pippen, believes it’s a foregone conclusion Williamson will be the top pick. If the Bulls finish with a bottom-three record, they will have a 14 percent chance to claim him. If they’re fourth-worst, it dips to 12.5 percent.
Many basketball people, coaches and scouts, believe there’s only a modest gap between Williamson and RJ Barrett, Duke’s leading scorer at 23 points per game. Williamson is at 22.
“If you don’t pick Zion at No. 1, do you get run out of town?” one Division I coach said.
Vitale said this during the broadcast: “Whoever drafts this kid is gonna love it. He’s a box-office bonanza.”
The 6-7 Barrett, who entered the season No. 1 on most draft boards, might be more of a known quantity though.
“He is in the James Harden mold,” another coach said. “He will be an aggressive, hungry scorer, attacking at all times. He’ll be a big iso guy and get to the foul line. With Barrett, you know what you’re getting.
“Zion is a unicorn. He gets a lot of activity off the glass, off the break. What I love about him is his motor. Every time I watch him, he plays with such a joy and energy. He plays his butt off every night, and that carries over to the other guys. And that athleticism … but he has to become a better shooter, and there’s some question about how you use him.”
Williamson is listed at 6-7, so perhaps 2 inches taller than Barkley but still undersized for an NBA small forward.
“Is he a power forward? Could you play him at two (shooting guard) because of his foot quickness and post him up?” legendary NBA analyst Hubie Brown asked Tuesday during Boston College’s shootaround at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “That’s a big question.”
What the scouts who dig deeper on Williamson will find is a rare trait, even more uncommon than a 285-pound man who can go eye to eye with the rim. That trait is empathy.
“As great a basketball player as he is, he’s a better person,” said Brennan Besser, a fourth-year Duke walk-on guard who graduated from Chicago’s Latin School. “I’ve seen a number of unbelievably talented players who are now in the NBA, and he is the first teammate to leverage his star power to create a more equitable space for everyone on the team.”
Williamson does this in a number of ways. By including Buckmire, a little-used guard, in interviews. By giving teammates such as Besser a shoutout in Duke-produced (“Duke Blue Planet”) videos.
Said Besser: “Duke recruits great players. A lot of times these guys are so basketball-centric. Zion is the most multidimensional player and friend that I’ve come across. It creates a culture where everybody feels loved. He does it because he’s a nice guy and he knows that if he were a walk-on, he’d want to be treated that way. He has that sixth sense. He cares about other people.”