Published 8:08 AM EDT Jun 21, 2019
New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson was a lock all along to be the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft.
But the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award is a different story.
Statistically, just 13 of the 34 lottery era No. 1 picks went on to win ROY. Luka Dončić, drafted No. 3 in 2018, is expected to take home the award June 24.
While Williamson is sure to deliver for highlight reels and boost ticket sales in New Orleans right away, his ability to meet expectations will have much to do with his transition from the college game — where he was the national player of the year — to a much more demanding pro level. His role on the Pelicans, who seem destined for the playoffs after a very successful draft, also will affect his chances.
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USA TODAY Sports offers four reasons Williamson might not be ROY in 2019-20, in spite of being an 82% favorite to win it, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers:
1. Ex-teammate RJ Barrett could fare better
Coach Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t shy in raving about Williamson in interviews with the media leading up to the draft, calling the 6-6 forward “a gift from God.” But he’s also been just as high on fellow first-team All-American Barrett, who might be more of a developed, NBA-ready prospect. The New York Knicks will soon find out.
When Coach K drew up plays at the end of games last season at Duke, there was a reason the ball was in Barrett’s hands. Was Krzyzewski seeing a maturity or X-factor scouts were missing?
Ultimately, Barrett’s got international experience (Canada’s national team) under his belt and his Penny Hardaway-esque point-forward style could translate better at the pro level (Krzyzewski thinks he can be a regular triple-double guy). That’s not to say Williamson won’t, but he does have some work to do, including fine-tuning his outside jumper and developing better discipline on defense — areas where Barrett is solid.
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2. He’ll be on a really good team
For rookies to excel, they need ample opportunity and often, the right role. The Pelicans have been candid about their blueprint to build the team around Williamson. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re expecting him to be LeBron James 2.0 on Day 1. Both executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin and coach Alvin Gentry know to have patience, and in doing so some of the other key parts to this squad — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and veteran Jrue Holiday — can help shoulder the offensive load.
It’s a luxury to be drafted by a team with a playoff makeup as the No. 1 pick, but it also means Williamson’s role may not be alpha dog just yet, paving the way for other rookies in small market scenarios (like Ja Morant in Memphis) to flourish.
3. The NBA season is 82 games
The transition from a 35-game NCAA season to a rigorous 82-game schedule is hard on any rookie, but that’s one reason some of the most highly-touted newcomers don’t put it all together right away. Even MVPs like Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Jame Harden and Steph Curry didn’t win Rookie of the Year. It’s hardly a knock on Williamson if he doesn’t win.
The other side of a long season is the injury bug. When Williamson missed six games with a leg injury in 2018-19, pundits were telling the teenager to shut it down and not risk his future. Think a similar don’t-risk-the-future thought process won’t be going through the minds of Pelicans’ brass should Williamson suffer an injury mid-season?
4. The spotlight is damning
Williamson was rather sheltered from the media during his lone season at Duke, and because of it his shy personality came off as innocent and humble. But what happens when all the pressure is resting on his shoulders, an NBA paycheck (with endorsement dollars) is coming his way and demands to turn the Pelicans into a contender test Williamson’s aw-shucks demeanor?
All signs so far point to the rookie focusing on what he can control, but if he’s having a bad shooting performance (he was an inconsistent 33% from three-point range in college and has to work on his mechanics) that’s leading to losses, his psyche or confidence could be impaired by all that comes from a gigantic spotlight.
Follow Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson