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How Does Zion Williamson Measure Up to LeBron James?

Zion Williamson is on his way to the NBA. With that in mind, the Open Floor podcast considers what's next for him and ask big questions about his future in the league.

The legend of Zion Williamson continues to the next level. Duke is done in March Madness and the NBA is on the horizon, so Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver of The Washington Post discuss what awaits Zion in the league. What's the difference between Zion and LeBron? What's his best basketball comparison? What should really be expected of him? The Open Floor podcast considers every question and more on their latest episode. 

(Listen to the latest Open Floor podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

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Andrew Sharp: I enjoyed the Duke-Michigan State ending at least insofar as it should reframe the way we think about Zion and what he's going to be able to do. I think his ability to operate comfortably on the perimeter is a real thing, and as the role guy in a pick-and-roll he can handle the ball, he can pass, he can get to the rim and finish and he's going to be really, really dangerous going downhill in like four-on-three situations. The same way Draymond Green does in Golden State, but Zion is a much better offensive player around the rim than Draymond is so he's going to be that much more dangerous.

And so all of that I think is real and it's a way to use him in the halfcourt, but he's not the next LeBron, and I hope that everyone understands that. I imagine everyone who listens to our podcast probably does understand that, but as famous as he is and as real as this phenomenon has been... I guess, let me put it this way: I think that Zion is the next LeBron is that he has met some of the craziest expectations we've seen in 20 years, and in fact he's actually exceeded those expectations. And Zion is the first person to do that since LeBron.

So in that respect, the LeBron comparisons are kind of unavoidable because we just haven't seen a phenomenon like this in 20 years. The basketball story is going to be different, though, and he's not going to be the next LeBron, next Jordan, guy who is creating and carrying teams in these crucial moments. And in those moments he's going to be more of a big man in the same way that Joel Embiid is that way. You're not going to see Embiid carrying teams. 

Ben Golliver: Yeah, let me hop on that point real quick just to underline it. With Jordan, he's remembered for the shot at North Carolina. Last seconds, clock ticking down, he goes to the jumper, it's wet, he has the confidence, he drains it, they win the title. For LeBron, I don't know if you saw the More Than a Game documentary about his entire career, but there's a key sequence late, they're going for the title. Might have been the semifinal or the final game, LeBron finds his high school teammate in the corner wide open for a three, the guy buries it, they win the title. In those moments you kind of got a sneak peek of what they might look like when the pressure is on when they're at that next level, what's their thought process going to be. Who are they?

Jordan, of course, the killer, he's trying to get his own shot every single time. They finally guilt trip him into passing to John Paxson every once in a while, but we knew what he wanted to do with the ball. It was what he did to Bryon Russell. With LeBron, a lot of times he's looking for those corner shooters late in games. He's collapsing defenses and trying to create the best shot for his teammates. He's said as much. He views himself as a playmaker, not a scorer. With Zion, like you just mentioned, it's more complicated. We haven't exactly seen how he's going to react to those situations yet because once he was put in that exact spot against Michigan State, he didn't really have a plan for what he wanted to do. I'm not saying he's going to spend the rest of his NBA career passing out of those spots, but I do think if he lands in your lap and you're the coach, you have to be thinking from day one, 'Exactly how do I want to use this guy late in games?'

Sharp: And it's going to be difficult. The same way the Clippers had trouble leaning on Blake Griffin late in games. It's a different conversation with big guys, and Zion is a big guy. You say his handle needs to get better and that's true. His handle is good for a big guy, but if he's going to be out on the perimeter trying to beat guys in that zone his handle does need to get better. The same is true with his jumper. I'm glad you mentioned his inability to trust it in that moment, because that was the litmus test, really. He can hit these standstill threes where teams aren't really guarding him and he's catching teams off guard. But in those big moments where teams are paying attention, Zion's not going to be a shooter—at least in the first year of his career. 


Golliver: And there was another shot with four or five minutes left in that game. I think he was tired. He jacked up a step-back three, it missed badly. And as soon as he missed that shot, I was like, 'I bet he's not going to take another one here.' I think that was it. 

Sharp: And that was probably the right call. I do think if we're talking about his NBA future I wrote a column on Sports Illustrated that ran Tuesday. If anyone wants to go read that, go check it out. I think, this is a point you made a couple weeks ago, Zion in the pace-and-space era with the new freedom-of-movement rules is going to be even more unguardable than most people can appreciate right now, and so I think he's going to have a really high baseline as a rookie and could and I think he's going to be really, really successful early on.

I think you're raising a good question, though. If we know he's going to be good, how great can he really be? Can he be the best player in the league? I don't know if he can. You and I talked on Sunday and I told you he probably couldn't because the limits on the perimeter kind of limit his ultimate, ultimate ceiling. But all of that is splitting hairs at a certain point. Is he going to be a top-five player? Maybe. Top 10? Probably. But he's going to be really good regardless.