Drew Brees has been the King of New Orleans for more than a decade now, and it will soon be time for him to hand the crown over to someone else. That someone may not play for the Saints, however.
After Zion Williamson was drafted No. 1 overall by the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday, Brees gifted him an autographed jersey with an awesome message on it. The 40-year-old quarterback told told Williamson he is “passing the torch” to him.
The message from Drew?
“To Zion – Passing the torch to you! Who dat!” https://t.co/s6gMKtzJel
— Andrew Lopez (@_Andrew_Lopez) June 23, 2019
Williamson will turn 19 in a few weeks, which means he was only 9 when Brees led the Saints to their first championship in franchise history. It must be a surreal feeling for him to have a future Hall of Famer say something like that to him.
Brees isn’t the only admirer of Williamson that the Saints have, either. Sean Payton made it clear how he feels about Zion as soon as the Pelicans earned the top pick in the draft. The hype surrounding Williamson is very, very real.
The New Orleans Pelicans nabbed Zion Williamson first overall in the NBA Draft on Thursday night, which led to a lot of wider attention from the sports world. Some of that attention came from a somewhat unlikely source.
As Williamson is a North Carolina native, the Carolina Panthers’ Twitter account saw fit to wish Williamson good luck after the Pelicans drafted him. The Pelicans’ Twitter account, however, was quick to ask why the NFL team hadn’t bothered congratulating any of the Charlotte Hornets’ draftees.
ya know you guys have an NBA team in your city? They had a strong draft last night too, and yet no tweet to them? https://t.co/gca9hi3pBa
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) June 21, 2019
The New Orleans Saints, who in addition to sharing a city with the Pelicans are also the Panthers’ division rivals, wasted no time getting in on the fun.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) June 21, 2019
Is it a bit excessive considering Williamson is from North Carolina? Maybe. But it’s fun, makes for some harmless Twitter drama, and increases the visibility of the accounts involved, which is the entire point.
Zion Williamson has more hype surrounding him than any top overall draft pick since LeBron James, and his game has also been frequently compared to LeBron’s. It only makes sense, then, for Williamson to seek advice from the man who is supposed to eventually pass him the NBA torch.
LeBron has offered to share some wisdom with Williamson, and the 18-year-old said after he was drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday night that he is very open to listening. He also shared some specific questions he might ask LeBron.
LeBron James says he has advice for Zion Williamson. Zion said he'll take Bron up on his offer: "I probably will hit him up. Hopefully he responds to me. My questions would probably be what do I have to do to maintain, what do I have to do to just try to make my way to the top."
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) June 21, 2019
In addition to having natural-born talent, James is one of the hardest workers in the history of the NBA. Williamson could do a lot worse than trying to model his game and work ethic after LeBron’s.
The way Williamson reacted after being drafted on Thursday appears to prove he has remained humble despite all the hype, and that should only help his career.
Zion Williamson and everyone else who follow basketball have known for a very long time that he would be the top overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, but that didn’t make the moment any less special for the former Duke star.
Williamson was interviewed by ESPN after the New Orleans Pelicans officially selected him with the No. 1 pick, and the 18-year-old was overcome with emotion. He had to pause several times to fight back tears.
Zion Williamson breaking into sobs after being selected No. 1 overall. pic.twitter.com/MjsSw2RpFN
— Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) June 20, 2019
Williamson said being drafted No. 1 overall is something he has been dreaming of since he was 5 years old, so you can understand the reaction. Even if it has been a foregone conclusion that he would be the top pick, knowing it’s coming and actually hearing the commissioner announce your name are two entirely different things.
The top of the 2019 NBA Draft appears to be finalized hours before the draft takes place.
Zion Williamson has long been expected to go No. 1 overall, while the Grizzlies have been tied to Ja Morant ever since winning the No. 2 pick in the lottery. RJ Barrett has also been expected to be picked by the Knicks at No. 3.
The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Thursday that those picks are already set, meaning the mystery won’t begin until the New Orleans Pelicans pick at No. 4.
Top three picks in 2019 NBA draft are set, per sources:
1. Zion Williamson, Pelicans
2. Ja Morant, Grizzlies
3. RJ Barrett, Knicks
Pelicans hold cards at No. 4.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 20, 2019
Players like Darius Garland, Coby White, and De’Andre Hunter have been mentioned as potential picks at No. 4. New Orleans also has been interested in trading that pick.
The real fun will begin with that fourth pick.
Zion Williamson made sure to set the record straight about his first meal in New Orleans.
Williamson is widely expected to become the first overall pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft by the Pelicans. New Orleans is known for its cuisine, and Williamson was said to have ordered chicken strips during his first meal there. Word that Williamson ordered a fairly standard item rather than a city specialty did not sit well with the foodies out there, so Williamson had to clarify — he actually ate fried shrimp.
Zion: “New Orleans was very welcoming”
Joked report of him getting chicken tenders for his first meal are false
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) June 19, 2019
That’s what happens when you go out to eat with a 5-year-old child. Chicken tenders are a popular item for the youngsters.
More important than all the food nonsense though is that Williamson told the media he is ready to be the face of a franchise. That’s a massive responsibility and expectation for an 18-year-old, but Williamson seems to have the impressive character to take on that task and thrive.
- Zion Williamson
Larry Brown Sports college basketball correspondent Shane McNichol covers the NBA Draft every June. This year, his rankings and full prospect profiles are available as part of his Palestra Back NBA Draft Guide. For $3, readers have access to 70 player breakdowns that include more than 25,000 words, making it a must for any draft nerd. Learn more at PalestraBack.com.
The post below is an excerpt from this guide, breaking down the presumptive No. 1 overall pick, Zion Williamson.
WHAT HE DOES WELL:
Everything you read or watch about Williamson will lead with his forceful play above the rim, his effectiveness in transition, or his ability to drive the basketball with direct aggressiveness. Each of those elements is part of Williamson’s game, with each of those factors adding to his position as a top-tier prospect.
In truth, what really separates Williamson from other high-level athletes is his ability to use his speed, springiness, and quickness on the defensive end of the floor. Despite standing 6-foot-8, Williamson was an effective rim protector patrolling the paint in his year at Duke. His ability to nearly scrape the ceiling, jumping off of one foot or both, makes Zion Williamson a feared shot blocker. He swatted 2.4 shots per 40 minutes, posting a block rate of 5.8 this season.
Although Williamson was among the heaviest players in all of college basketball at 285 pounds, his foot speed allowed him to close out on shooters and into passing lanes. No player taller or heavier than Williamson recorded a higher percentage of steals this season on a per-possession basis than the Duke freshman.
His rejection of a De’Andre Hunter 3-pointer at Virginia was the perfect encapsulation of Williamson’s defensive abilities.
How did Zion get to this? pic.twitter.com/TFWbOQDu79
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) February 10, 2019
Williamson reaches a closing speed that no one his size could even dream about reaching and a peak height that no one, no matter their size, could match.
There are maybe five NBA players who can even fathom trying to guard every single player in the NBA. LeBron James, Giannis Antetekuompo, Ben Simmons, and maybe Kevin Durant make up that entire list. From the second Williamson steps on the court, he joins that group. If he stays properly motivated and healthy, Williamson could be First Team All-Defense many, many times, beginning as a rookie.
Attacking the paint
Williamson’s ability to effectively spark his team offensively stems from his penchant to use his size and speed to slice into the painted area. Defenders are constantly forced out of position as Williamson uses his body to create space.
While he was at Duke, Williamson unleashed a siege on the paint, doing so by building a full head of steam, barreling from the perimeter, or establishing position on the block. Either way, once Williamson had the ball inside his optimal scoring range, he was unstoppable. As just a freshman, Williamson led the ACC in 2-point shooting percentage and field goal shooting. In conference play, he converted just under 77 percent inside the arc.
Williamson showed the ability to score in the paint with floaters, hooks, layups, and dunks. While Zion certainly could overpower college level opponents, and he did, his arsenal of ways to score proves that he’ll continue to be able to convert at the next level.
When Williamson doesn’t get the ball where he wants to, it’s often because he was fouled. In ACC play, Williamson drew 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes, the 2nd-highest rate in the conference. With defenders constantly out of place, many are left with no other option than to reach in or overextended their arms, sending Williamson to the free throw line.
This year’s Duke team was one of the worst shooting teams in all of college basketball. The Blue Devils shot in the bottom 8th percentile from outside the arc and the bottom 29th from the free throw stripe. Williamson was certainly part of that problem (more on that in a minute), yet he was surrounded by a crop of poor shooters for nearly all of his minutes on the floor this season. Duke’s offense struggled with spacing, without true shooters to stretch the defense to the 3-point arc.
Coach K also made the strategic choice to play Williamson at power forward this year rather than center. This left a big man in the paint, even further complicating Duke’s spacing issues.
For Williamson, this resulted in less room to operate when the ball was in his hands. Defenders were ready and able to double-team Williamson at a moment’s notice, or at least pay extra attention as he looked to operate in the paint.
As just a freshman, Williamson showed himself able to respond to those extra eyeballs, creating scoring chances for his teammates all year long. Williamson only averaged 2.1 assists per game, yet saw countless crisp, smart passes ruined by a subpar shooter missing the mark.
At the next level, Williamson may not be able to be a primary offensive creator early in his career, but has the court vision to develop into that kind of weapon with the ball in his hands. This season, playing as a power forward, he ranked in the 99th percentile as a ball-handler in pick-and-roll. For his size, that level of playmaking is mind-blowing.
WHERE HE STRUGGLES
Though he doesn’t lack shooting in the same way a player like Ben Simmons does, Zion Williamson’s jump shot leaves a lot to be desired. In Simmons’ case, he has chosen to exist completely without a 3-point shot. Heaven only knows if he could manage to even shoot 25 percent from beyond the arc or if that would be enough to at least make defenders stay within a car-length of the Sixers point guard. Instead, Simmons focuses his energy on attacking downhill and scoring on the interior.
Williamson looks to use his clunky jump shot to open up driving lanes to the basket. This season, he made 33.8 percent of his 71 collegiate long-range attempts, below the national average. He showed more issues in his shooting stroke at the free throw line, where he sank just 64 percent of his tries.
At the end of the day, Williamson can probably be a good enough shooter to open up the rest of his offensive game at the next level. Giannis Antetokounmpo attracted at least some perimeter attention, despite shooting just 26 percent from outside the arc. Draymond Green has been an effective playmaker when he was at least a threat to make shots, at 32 percent for his career. Joel Embiid suckers big men into his pump fake time-after-time, though he barely cracks 30 percent shooting as a pro.
If Williamson’s shot can at least make defenders commit to a cautious close-out on the perimeter, he’ll have no trouble blowing by them to the rim.
HOW HIS GAME TRANSLATES TO THE NBA:
Williamson will be able to compete in today’s NBA from day one due to his athleticism and high motor. He will be able to defend at an elite level right away, even when his offense is a work in progress. It may take Williamson time to adjust offensively, facing stronger defenders and more complete defensive schemes. He should find opportunities to score in transition or as a roll-man before finding and developing a smart, nuanced offensive identity.
His career will have extra life in the modern game, with positions becoming less and less important. Whereas a player the size of Zion Williamson used to be thought of as a “tweener” with no true position, we now know the value of a player able to switch defensively and exploit mismatches offensively. Williamson’s likely most valuable role will be as a small-ball center, protecting the rim with his verticality and spreading the floor offensively with his foot speed.
Springier Larry Johnson
Explosive Draymond Green
More Skilled Kenneth Farried
If you enjoyed this scouting breakdown, be sure to visit Palestra Back to purchase Shane McNichol’s full draft guide.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.