NBA rookies seem to be down on Zion Williamson's long-term career outlook, and scouts don't necessarily disagree
NBA.com conducted its annual rookie survey on Monday, asking this year's class of draftees seven questions about their fellow 2019 draft picks. In looking at the responses, one thing stands out among everything: Only five percent of rookies believe No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson will end up having the best career. Here's how the voting broke down:
Cam Reddish, Atlanta Hawks -- 19 percent
Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies -- 16 percent
De'Andre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks -- 11 percent
R.J. Barrett, New York Knicks -- 5 percent
Jaxson Hayes, New Orleans Pelicans -- 5 percent
Coby White, Chicago Bulls -- 5 percent
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans -- 5 percent
Any way you slice it, that is a shocking number to see Zion that low. It's worth noting that Williamson was the overwhelming pick to win Rookie of the Year, gathering 35 percent of the vote with Memphis' Ja Morant coming in second at 27 percent. Before you go giving your money to Vegas, consider that the winner of the ROY survey has failed to actually win the award the last 10 years. The last time the rookies got it right was when they picked Kevin Durant in 2007.
Rookie of the Year is a scoring award (14 of the last 19 winners have led all rookies in scoring), and scoring does not figure to be Williamson's best immediate NBA skill -- that will likely be his versatile defense and positional rebounding, and his big-time motor that serves as the foundation of both.
Plus, the Pelicans are a good team. I've spoken to multiple people in that organization that fully believe they'll contend for a playoff berth, even in the stacked Western Conference. Barrett, Williamson's college teammate, for instance, will be a featured scorer from Day 1 with the Knicks. Zion, on the other hand, will likely have to get the bulk of his points on the edges -- i.e. in transition and on offensive put-backs -- while most of New Orleans' offense runs through Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball.
None of this is to say Zion won't win Rookie of the Year. My guess is he will, his scoring challenges notwithstanding. It simply begs the question: If such an appreciable percentage of players believe this strongly that Williamson will indeed win ROY, what's the deal with so few of them having similar faith in his overall career prospects?
Part of it has more to do with the ability of the guys voted ahead of Williamson -- particularly the tantalizing talent of Atlanta's No. 10 overall pick Cam Reddish, who got a survey-leading 19 percent of the votes. Fellow rookies aren't the only ones struck by Reddish's potential.
"I think [Reddish is] the most talented player in the draft," an Eastern Conference scout told CBS Sports.
Reddish checks every physical NBA box. At 6-foot-8, he can shoot with range and has the handle to create for himself and others. He's highly skilled. Fluid and coordinated. Long and athletic, he projects as a multiple-position defender, a premium skill in today's game.
The concern about Reddish centers on his mentality, that he "disappears" too easily, that he's passive and can fade from the action while players like Zion -- Reddish's college teammate at Duke -- are more naturally geared to force their imprint on a game. It's not uncommon for supremely gifted players to end up on the periphery in a program like Duke, where the talent pool is so deep even second-tier stars become lottery picks.
Think Wendell Carter Jr. in 2018. Luke Kennard, who went No. 12 overall to the Pistons in 2017, was a more prominent player for the Blue Devils, but he still took a backseat to Jayson Tatum. Frank Jackson didn't even start for Duke and he still went in the first round in 2018, and he's a player I'm really excited to watch this season with New Orleans.
The Hawks are betting Reddish's aggression will blossom with experience and freedom and outside the shadow of Williamson and Barrett. Playing alongside 2018 rookie Trae Young, already one of the better passers in the league, won't hurt. Comparing a rookie to an MVP candidate is risky, if not irresponsible, but in terms of physical comps, more than one scout likened Reddish to Paul George, whose aggression, or lack thereof, was similarly questioned when he was coming out of Fresno State in 2010.
"You hear stories of guys sending their boss to go see Paul play [in college] and he'd score like six points, when he was obviously the most talented player on the floor," a Western Conference scout told CBS Sports. "Some guys it takes a while for them to really feel comfortable asserting themselves. [Then-Pacers president of basketball operations] Larry Bird took Paul on a leap of faith, because the ability and skill and that length was obviously elite. That's a lot like Reddish. The physical stuff is all there. The mindset will be what determines what kind of pro he'll be."
So, yes, you can understand, and even support, the prevailing opinion that Reddish will end up having the best career of this year's rookie class. Morant registering second in voting is also understandable; the guy can be magical with the ball in his hands. Hunter showing up third is somewhat surprising, but again, scouts I talked to before the draft like Hunter's chances to surprise his offensive skeptics now that he gets to play outside the regimented, pattern-oriented offense he played in at Virginia, and we know he projects as a good-to-great defender right away.
Still, that five-percent number next to Williamson's name is jarring. If it was 12 percent? Fine. Nobody's saying Zion needs to be everyone's top choice in terms of career outlook. There are legitimate questions about his game, and beyond that, the voting results in general have to be taken with a grain of salt. These are rookies at a sponsored event getting asked questions in between photo shoots. They're not exactly putting a ton of thought into their answers. They're part voting for their friends. In some cases, they appear to be voting for themselves.
But for fellow rookies to acknowledge Zion as the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year, and also acknowledge him as the class' best athlete (kind of a no-brainer), and then all but leave him off the list when it comes to long-term outlook, well, it says something. Maybe not a ton, but something.
The hype around Zion is concerning in the sense that he could end up being a very good NBA player and still feel like a disappointment because people placed too high of expectations on him in the first place. That comes with the territory, of course. He was the No. 1 overall pick. He's an athletic freak even among other athletic freaks. He went to Duke and can jump to the moon and has a motor that won't quit.
Sports Illustrated's Andrew Sharp quoted one scout as saying Williamson projects as "Draymond Green with rockets in his ass" -- which sounds like, at worst, the most terrorizing defender on the planet. Still, his flaws are real, and perhaps too easily overlooked. He's not a perfect prospect.
"Far from it," a Western Conference scout told CBS Sports. "He's not a LeBron James or an Anthony Davis or, you know, a Hakeem Olajuwon. He's not that. He's like every other player in this draft, or really any draft. He's got things to work on. Some of them are big things. No, he's not a perfect prospect. Not by any stretch. But he's an NBA starter at worst."
In most people's eyes, that's the difference between Zion and Reddish, and a lot of other rookies for that matter: his floor is, by all accounts, pretty darn high. On defense, energy and athleticism alone, he's going to be a very good, borderline All-Star player in all likelihood, whereas a guy like Reddish feels more boom-or-bust. For Williamson to boom, it's all about the shooting, which has to get better, and generally speaking people put far too much stock in shooting being an easily improvable skill.
"That will likely determine whether he becomes a franchise-level player," the Western Conference scout told CBS Sports. "I think he can improve as a shooter. I hear great things about his work ethic. He's not the type of guy who's going to get in his own way by not addressing a weakness. He's going to do what he needs to do to get better."
"There's no way this guy isn't going to be a productive, core player in the league," the Eastern conference scout said. "The skill development will be the key to him reaching his ceiling, but his floor is so high just on how hard he plays and the defense, and obviously the athleticism. You can't teach jumping out of the gym, you know what I'm saying?
"That's why you have to be careful not to overcomplicate his evaluation, or pick him apart too much," the scout continued. "Does he have holes? Yes. Does he need to improve as a shooter? Yes. But offensively, he's a better passer than people think, and he's got great touch around the rim. He's a great finisher even when he's not dunking. I mean, at the end of the day, he's a freak. His physicality alone is going to separate him even in the NBA. He's just, abnormal. Is he LeBron James or Anthony Davis? No. But he's a really good player for sure, with a chance to be great."