The assignment was simple. The coaches speaking to Sporting News would be granted full anonymity, so they could say anything they wanted about how a team in the 2019 NCAA Tournament should deal with Zion Williamson. Some of them are conference rivals, so even if they won’t face Zion again, they still must contend with Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke program one or more times each season. It was important the Blue Devils never would know who was giving away the secret ingredients.
This didn’t quite go as planned, though. Because all the coaches still spoke with reverence about Zion.
SN’s MARCH MADNESS HQ
Printable bracket | Predictor tool | Best bracket names | Tickets
There wasn’t a whole lot of: He can’t do this. He can’t do that. You can make him irrelevant if you put him in this situation. There was a whole lot of what best can be summarized as: Wow.
Unless and until Duke is eliminated from March Madness, this tournament will be defined by Williamson’s presence. He averaged 22.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game, and the Blue Devils went 24-2 when he played a full game. Every team he encounters in this event, whether it is their first-round opponent or perhaps Michigan State in the Elite Eight, will have to have a plan for dealing with him.
Although the coaches we contacted ended up flattering him more so than critiquing him, they did offer insight about what might be the game plan in trying to cope with Williamson and the rest of the Blue Devils.
SN’s BRACKET PICKS:
High-major assistant coach No. 1
One of the things he kills you with is his second effort. If he misses a shot, he’s so quick off the floor. He goes and gets it, and he gets a 3-point play. Not only is he good defensively, blocking shots and making steals, they convert them. The biggest thing about Zion is his hustle plays are unbelievable. They’re backbreakers. You don’t typically expect that from a star-level player.
All young players get a little anxious, so I think you have to crowd him. Because he’ll run you over a little bit. You’ve got to run guys at him. You’ve got to make him be a passer. They’ve got a couple guys out there that don’t really make plays. I would make him throw it to them and make those guys beat you that night.
He will probably get in foul trouble more on offense than defense — if you can get guys to stand in and take a charge. He’s a big dude, now. Believe me, we had guys bailing out in our game. He gets a little wild. You can get him to do those types of things, but somebody has to be willing to do it.
SN’s 2018-19 AWARDS:
Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | All-American teams
ACC assistant coach No. 1
He’s a handful. People get really wowed by his athleticism, but he knows how to play. His IQ is realy high, and he plays really hard — which a lot of young guys don’t do.
When you try to stop him from scoring, he can pass. And the rebound: You literally need two guys on him at all times, and you still might not get the ball.
When he catches the ball, he needs to see six eyes. You want to try to force him to get the ball as far from the basket, which is hard because they make a concerted effort to get it to him close. Your biggest concern is him scoring and him getting your guys in foul trouble.
When he’s on defense, pull him away from the basket, because he’s a really good rim protector for his size. You’ve got to know where he’s at when you’re driving and he’s around the basket. And the plays that he makes, even if it’s just one or two blocks they’re so impactful and he gives so much energy to his team and to the crowd.
One block is equivalent to like five.
MORE: Scouting Zion Williamson, Duke’s dunking, dominant phenom
ACC assistant coach No. 2
He’s such a remarkable athlete, but he has what people don’t give him credit for: an unbelievable IQ. The value of that guy cannot be filled by anyone or anybody. He impacts the game not in the box score.
When things go bad for them, he covers up so much ground from others’ mistakes. He allows his teammates to be out of position. You see that with his ability to block shots.
He knows who he is as a player, first and foremost. He’s not doing things he can’t do. He’s not allowing what the media thinks about his game to stop him from dominating. The other part of it is his ability to stay out of foul trouble, to get the rebound knowing that two guys are going to block him out and he still has a knack for where the ball is going.
Also, he knows spacing, because he’s not crowding his teammates. He’s giving RJ Barrett enough space to operate. And he’s very unselfish. He’s not running to the ball like a 5-year-old soccer player.
NBA MOCK DRAFT 2.0: Zion Williamson, Duke trio nearly sweep top three picks
You know he’s getting offensive rebounds. You can’t control where the ball is going. But there’s one guy who knows where it’s going to be. He has that Dennis Rodman approach to rebounding. If he puts his mind to it, he can be a guy who rebounds the ball like Rodman. If rebounding was treated like those dunks that he does, he’d go out and average 23 rebounds a game. The dude is a force, and there’s not a center or PG who can defend him.
A charge isn’t going to stop that dude. If you meshed Larry Johnson, Dennis Rodman, guys like that, into one player, you have Zion Williamson. It’s a unique talent, because the last person to make an impact like that was LeBron James.
He gives them confidence to take shots. He’s been great for Cam Reddish, and that’s probably one of the reasons Cam struggled when he was hurt. Zion gave him a chance to go out and take chances; he’s not as much of a risk-taker as RJ is.
ACC assistant coach No. 3
Zion is a better ballhandler than he’s given credit for. He’s a better passer.
The thing you have to try to do is shrink the court. You have to try to make sure when Zion has the ball there are jerseys around him. Build a wall around him. You know RJ can shoot it, Cam can shoot it. The other guys have struggled.
If you give him any space, he’s too fast. He’s going to get there. And once he feels the contact, it springs him forward. Most guys if you hit them, they lose balance. He’s so powerful, you really have to clobber him. Which most guys don’t. They just get the hell out of the way.
QUIT THE COMPARISONS:
Duke’s Zion Williamson is something basketball has never seen
High-major head coach No. 1
He is so quick off the floor, and he’s so powerful. There are times when we played them, and he just went through our guys’ chin and chest. Our guys were right there to block his shot, but his power and explosiveness is just amazing.
I would tell you that with them, to play them, people say back off and let him shoot threes. That’s not the way to do it because he knows how to take up the space and get closer to the basket. What you’ve got to do, you’ve got to guard him and guard RJ Barrett, and everybody else you’ve got to shrink the floor.
They are not a great 3-point shooting team. Jack White has had issues, Reddish is inconsistent.
The more Zion can play on the perimeter, the better you’re going to be. You can’t ever let him get in transition. The less they’re in transition, that’s important, because now you’ve got to keep the floor shrunk. The more it’s tighter and compacted — that’s why Duke has struggled against VT, because they do such a good job of keeping the floor compact. There’s not a lot of room to drive. If Duke’s not shooting great from 3, they’re very beatable. You can’t let them beat you from 3-point range.
There is no gameplan if they make a bunch of 3s. It’s impossible to beat them.
BRACKET TIPS: KenPom | Play the odds | Idiot’s guide
High-major assistant coach No. 2
No one man can defend him. You have to force him to shoot. Now, he’ll make you pay, but you’d much rather do that than have him shoot 70 percent from 15 feet and in.
What you have to try to do is have somebody who can space the floor and also put it on the floor.
He’s a good defender. He’s a good help-side defender. He can block shots. But you have to try to move him as much as possible. If you have an offensive player that can play inside out, space him out, run him off staggers, that can keep him occupied. If you allow him to play centerfield and be a linebacker, he’s going to make the right play 100 percent of the time.
Now that’s easier said than done, because they have a point guard in Tre Jones who can pick up 94 feet and make it hard to get an offense started.
The real basketball minds can see that he can see stuff two plays away, to be able to come offer help side and make that steal, to be able to hit a gap and make the right play, to hit the guy in the corner.
He likes to play. You can tell. He finds joy in it. He likes to work and wants to get better.