The first time I saw Zion in person – in the ACC tournament against Syracuse on his stunning return from sneaker-blowing – I wondered how he might fit into a team built on the Golden State method of spacing the court and shooting 3-pointers, which is basically the same thing every NBA team has come to do. Zion is 6-foot-7, which means height-wise he’s a wing, but you need only look to know, “He’s no wing.” He’s listed at 284 pounds, which sounds about right, and not in a bad way.
The early and easy comparisons have likened him to smallish power forwards like Charles Barkley, who wasn’t quite 6-5, or Larry Johnson, who was 6-7, but neither is an exact match. In the history of basketball, there has been no player exactly like Zion. He doesn’t shoot quite as well as you’d want a wing to shoot, but he’s so big and fast he can get wherever he wants to go. (He made 68.0 percent of his field-goal tries at Duke, which tells us he doesn’t take bad shots.)
Back to the power-forward thing: The Hawks have one of those. John Collins, two years a pro, isn’t far from being an All-Star. Collins is 6-10, which is exactly what you’d want in a 4, and I kept looking at Zion and thinking about Collins and wondering how the two could fit into a starting five. Then, on the second night of my Zion-viewing – this against North Carolina, against whom he scored the winning hoop – it hit me: Zion would be the center.
Here we must put aside our memories of classic centers – Wilt and Russell, Kareem and Shaq – and think of 21st century centers, of which there are almost none. Instead of a big man who plays on the low block, think of a big man who plays everywhere, the way Davis and Joel Embiid do. Now think of a slightly smaller man who can play both low and high and affect the game at both ends. In sum, think of Draymond Green.
The Golden State model might well have amounted to nothing much if not for Draymond’s all-around skills. He’s 6-7. He can play the 4, but it’s when he plays the 5 that the Warriors are, not to go all Dan Quinn on you, the best version of themselves.
Draymond at the 5 became the anchor in what became Golden State’s Death Lineup, the one to which Steve Kerr turned to put opponents out of their misery. Those five – Draymond, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and sub Andre Iguodala – became even deadlier with the switch from Barnes to Durant. In Game 1 of the ongoing blood feud with Houston, Kerr started his Death Lineup.
Zion can score at will, which Draymond cannot. He also can do some of what Draymond does well, which is pass and defend and generally terrify opponents. The Warriors have proved you can win titles without much of a post-up game – they sought to add that with DeMarcus Cousins, who tore his quad in Game 2 of Round 1 – but Zion in the post would render a team laden with shooters, as the Hawks aspire to be, that much harder to guard. A defense would have to follow him wherever he goes, and he goes, as noted, everywhere.
We think of floor-spreaders as big guys who can shoot, the stretch-4s like Durant, not that there’s anyone like Durant. Zion would be a floor-spreader in a different way, and can you imagine him being the picker-and-roller with Trae Young? Young’s lobs to Collins are already “SportsCenter” staples; can you imagine Young throwing high for Zion?
(Pause for breath. Getting carried away. Sorry.)
Travis Schlenk is the Hawks’ general manager. He came from Golden State. His second draft saw him take Young and Kevin Huerter, a not-bad facsimile of the Splash Brothers by the Bay. Now imagine the new-look Hawks with someone on the order of Zion, not that there’s anyone quite like Zion. On Friday, Schlenk referred to Zion as “a phenomenal talent,” which fell under the heading of “no duh.”
How might the Hawks look with Zion? Like the most entertaining team in the whole-wide NBA and, given time to mature, like one of the absolute best. I’m not trying to trigger mass hyperventilation over something that has a 10.5 percent chance of happening – but imagine if it did.