During the 2020-21 NBA season, Zion Williamson averaged 27.0 PPG (61.1 FG%), 7.2 RPG, 3.7 APG, 0.9 SPG and 0.6 BPG while playing in 61 of the Pelicans’ 72 games, starting the season at 20 years old.
The problem? In the other two full seasons that Williamson has been in the NBA, he’s played a total of 20 out of 154 possible games, including zero last season.
Now 22 years old, Williamson is reportedly in the “best shape of his life.” He just signed a max rookie extension this offseason. He is still the marquee player on a Pelicans team with legitimate playoffs buzz this season.
But where should you draft him in your fantasy basketball league?
Ooh. That’s a tough question.
Williamson has the potential this season to be a better and more productive player than he was during his sophomore campaign two years ago. He still has his unmatchable explosion-girth combo that makes him one of the most difficult players in the NBA to guard, but he has also had time to mature physically and emotionally, plus another full season around the game to work on his craft.
However, the Pelicans also had a full season to get used to playing without him. In that season, Brandon Ingram blossomed into a full-on NBA star, capable of averaging 27.0 PPG, 6.2 APG and 6.2 RPG during the playoffs with a usage percentage above 29 in both the regular and postseason.
They also brought in CJ McCollum in a late season trade that revitalized the team and led to their postseason push. McCollum averaged 24.3 PPG and 5.8 APG in 26 regular-season games with the Pels. McCollum and Ingram averaged 37.1 combined field goal attempts in the season, and a whopping 40.5 FGA during the playoffs.
While it can be argued that having talented teammates should make it even easier for Williamson to score, efficiency was never the issue. He already shoots over 60% from the field. But it’s hard to imagine him getting the usage he’d need to match even the 27 and 4 he averaged two seasons ago, let alone exceed it. His volume is capped by the need to share the rock.
And then there’s the elephant in the room: health. Williamson suffered a lower body injury that kept him out for huge swathes of games in three of the four seasons he’s played post-high school, including his one season at Duke. The mount of explosiveness he generates at his massive size generates incredible amounts of torque and forces on his lower extremities that can be pathological if his jumping form isn’t precise enough.
Stephania Bell has done a wonderful job of breaking that down over the last few years, and it holds true this year as well. At this point in his career, fantasy managers just have to accept that he’s going to be an injury risk.
On a per-game basis, Williamson’s production should land him in the top-25 of fantasy producers, and that’s conservative. But, with the risks and upside cap that he faces this season, I’m unlikely to draft him before the fifth round of (m)any leagues. This means that I’m likely to miss out on having Williamson on (m)any of my teams, because his ADP will be higher than that. With a week left in September, it’s currently at 29.6.
But, I’d rather have piece of mind. I swung for the fences with Williamson on several of my teams last season, and struck out. Mixed baseball metaphor aside, I’m unlikely to risk getting burned again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice … I can’t let myself get fooled again! I may miss out on a magical season from Williamson, but I’m content to let someone else take the risk/reward plunge.
All that said, if it’s the fifth round and Williamson is still sitting there because everyone else is also afraid to draft him? Sign me up! I’ll take a crack at a potential first-round pick type of season if I can get him with my fifth pick. That’s a potential league-winner, if things go the right way.