A common phrase you'll hear about Duke freshman Zion Williamson: "I've never seen anyone like him." That's a fair assessment, and it mostly has to do with his unprecedented combination of strength and athleticism. There are no apt comparisons.
That's based on eye test. But there's truth to it in his statistical profile, too. Williamson is doing things we haven't seen in decades. And as a quick aside, we're keeping this to 20 years because of how hard it is to compare different eras of basketball. Williamson isn't putting up numbers like Oscar Robertson or Pistol Pete did back in the day. But the game has changed quite a bit since then.
Sports Reference started tracking player efficiency rating in 2009-10. Here's where Williamson stacks up to college basketball's PER leaders since then:
|Zion Williamson, 2018-19||Duke||41.2|
|John Brown, 2015-16||High Point||36.9|
|Jameel Warney, 2015-16||Stony Brook||36.4|
|Kelly Olynyk, 2012-13||Gonzaga||36.2|
|John Collins, 2016-17||Wake Forest||35.9|
|Mike Muscala, 2012-13||Bucknell||35.7|
|Alan Williams, 2013-14||UC-Santa Barbara||35.7|
|Anthony Davis, 2011-12||Kentucky||35.1|
|Thomas Walkup, 2015-16||Stephen F. Austin||34.8|
|Kenneth Faried, 2010-11||Morehead State||34.7|
Now, should we only judge players based on their PER? Of course not. John Brown is not better than Anthony Davis, for instance. But it's a catch-all stat that provides a good glimpse into who's producing the most in an efficient manner. And the fact that nobody in the past nine years is even close to Williamson is significant. There's just more than a two-point margin between No. 2 and No. 10 on this list; Williamson is ahead of No. 2 by more than four points.
Let's take a look at every Naismith winner since the 1998-99 season. We're going to use per-40 stats instead of raw game averages to eliminate differences in minutes. We don't know if Williamson will win the Naismith yet, but if he does, here's how he would stack up if the season ended today:
|2004||Jameer Nelson||St. Joseph's||24.3||5.5||6.3||0.0||47.5||39.0|
|2008||Tyler Hansbrough||North Carolina||27.4||12.4||1.1||0.4||54.0||0.0|
|2010||Evan Turner||Ohio State||22.8||10.3||6.7||1.0||51.9||36.4|
Williamson is first in field goal percentage, third in points, third in rebounds, and fourth in blocks. Griffin, Durant and McDermott are probably Williamson's biggest challengers here.
Williamson's overall numbers are better than Durant's and McDermott's, even if it's fairly close. Griffin has the best opposing case. His rebounding numbers were absurd, he shot 3s at a higher clip, and he was almost as efficient as Williamson.
It's fair to point out that 2018-19 Duke will probably win more games than 2008-09 Oklahoma. The Sooners went 30-6 that year and were awesome, but the Blue Devils have a good shot to snag the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. It would be a surprise if they lost six games. And this doesn't show up in these stats (outside of blocks), but Williamson might be the best defender in college basketball this season. Griffin was good on that end at Oklahoma, but not on Williamson's level. One could reasonably argue Griffin was better overall; it's splitting hairs. But Williamson gets the slight edge in this space because of his defense.
Of course, some phenomenal players who have had phenomenal seasons have failed to win the Naismith. Adam Morrison, Stephen Curry and Michael Beasley are three names that come to mind.
Morrison and Curry were excellent, but when you look at the per-40 minute stats, they don't match up to Williamson after you move past the scoring numbers. Beasley is different. His stats at Kansas State were eye-popping, and arguably better:
Beasley edges Williamson in points and rebounds, but wasn't nearly as efficient or as good of a passer or defender. Kansas State also went 21-12 in his lone college season. Beasley didn't have the supporting cast Williamson does, but it's harder to put up such massive numbers on a title contender.
Like Griffin, this comes down to preference. Williamson is a much better defender than Beasley was at K-State, though that's admittedly subjective. It's close, but we'll take Williamson.
There are a few months left in the season. Williamson may not keep this up, though he's shown no signs of slowing down.
At the very least, we're watching one of the best individual college basketball seasons in decades. It may wind up being the best. The bottom line: enjoy Williamson while he's at Duke, because we haven't seen anyone like him before. And we probably won't for a long, long time.