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Ed Hardin: Biggest tests await Zion Williamson in the NBA
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Ed Hardin: Biggest tests await Zion Williamson in the NBA

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The lights are brighter now, and the heat is on as Zion Williamson gets ready for one of the many tests he’ll face over the coming weeks.

Duke plays rival North Carolina on Wednesday with the eyes of basketball staring at the freshman phenom. Not just college basketball. The NBA is watching now.

We’re nearing the end of his career at Duke, and while most fans and analysts have come to the conclusion that Williamson is indeed the best player of this generation and a clear-cut No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, it will be the scouts and front offices in “The League” who will make that call.

Now that we’ve seen him play 25 games, we know his impact on the college game. But what are the scouts really thinking? Let’s just say they aren’t looking at the same game we are.

They can see his leaping ability, his fast-twitch muscle fiber and his innate ability to anticipate and react.

They can see his peripheral vision, his footwork and his ambidextrous qualities around the rim.

But they can also see flaws that are both apparent and troubling.

Williamson shoots a set shot. He gets no air, even on three-pointers, just a slight hop of a couple of inches that sometimes sends his shots off at a low arc. That’s not going to work in the NBA.

He sometimes struggles at the line, currently making only 67 percent of his free throws, which are also line-drive shots with little or no knee bend, little or no fingertip release and, as a result, nothing resembling a shooter’s touch when the ball slams into the rim.

So that’s the short book on Williamson.

But what’s the deep dive? What are the scouts really looking for? Good luck finding one who will talk on the record, even as a background source, because the NBA doesn’t allow its scouts to talk about players not yet eligible for the draft.

Some stories have leaked out, and the voices seem most concerned with Williamson's weight. One team scouting director told Sports Illustrated that Williamson’s teammate R.J. Barrett is No. 1 on his list because he’s concerned that Williamson will balloon from 275 to 295 or more in the next five or six years.

That brings on knee and foot issues, and Williamson’s ability to float and spin and change directions will slow over time.

“My concern is over the course of 82 games, that's a lot of weight to lug around at that size,” the scouting director said. “If you play 82 games trying to carry that much baggage, it could be a concern going forward.”

You can only be a graceful 285 pounds for so long, he said.

They love his explosive, almost violent, jumping ability but are amazed at how he floats to the rim. And while they like his ball-handling in the open court, they question his decision-making in traffic.

Most people analyzing Williamson try to come up with comparisons from the past.

“He reminds me of Rodney Rogers,” Wake coach Danny Manning said.

“He’s like Charles Barkley was, except he shoots better than Barkley did,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.

LeBron James was asked at the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte what he thought of people mentioning him and Williamson in the same sentence.

“The comparison thing will never stop,” he said.

In other words, let’s not go there.

James did give a quick analysis of Williamson’s game, his leaping ability and his agility and speed for a bulky man. But James seemed most impressed by how Williamson carries himself on and off the court, his smile, his awareness of his surroundings.

That’s what Mike Krzyzewski points to as Williamson’s best quality.

“He’s a beautiful kid,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s so upbeat. Every time you see him, he’s upbeat and smiling. Like all of our freshmen, he’s comfortable with his own ability and his teammates around him.”

As a basketball player, Krzyzewski considers him the most unique player he has ever coached. Krzyzewski talked about scoring efficency and lateral quickness, second-shot instincts and understanding the passing game from a full-court presence.

“He’s growing as a basketball player,” Krzyzewski said.

Krzyzewski did reveal that Williamson isn’t 6-7 but closer to 6-6 and said too much emphasis is being put on Williamson’s shooting.

“He’s a great shooter,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s more than a dunker.”

Williamson will be tested in the coming weeks as the stage gets bigger and the lights get hotter. The real heat will be on the team with the first pick in the draft. Could they actually take Barrett first?

Most NBA scouts live in fear of the 1984 draft in which Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie went before Michael Jordan. But they also live in fear of drafting can’t-miss players who indeed missed, and it looked so obvious in the rear-view mirror.

Williamson is a player unlike any we’ve ever seen. He’s not really comparable to anyone else in the ACC.

But his biggest test isn’t Wednesday night or in Charlotte in March or in the NCAA Tournament beyond that.

His real test is at the next level, where he won’t be playing against Wake Forest or even Carolina.

The NBA awaits, and Zion Williamson, the man and the myth, is coming.

Ready or not.

Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.

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