Zion Williamson’s gravitational pull is drawing in everyone associated with the NBA. The Duke freshman is the future, and coaches, players, front-office types, media members and the people who clean the arenas know it. He’s already part of the league’s fabric, even though he has yet to put on an NBA uniform.
Everybody has an opinion about him.
“What strikes me? His agility and his quickness,” LeBron James said. “For his size, how strong he is, to be able to move like the way he moves, he’s very impressive. I mean, everybody can see the athleticism. That’s obvious; that’s ridiculous. But the speed and the quickness that he moves [with] at that size is very impressive.”
“He has a lot of hype around him and he’s unbelievably talented, but you can’t teach his passion and motor,’’ Stephen Curry said. “He plays hard every possession, and that’s an underrated skill that kids should emulate.”
Everybody wants to be around Zion. Everybody is sure they know what’s best for him.
And here’s the thing as it relates to the Bulls’ laissez-faire approach to getting him in the lottery:
Every NBA player will want to be his teammate.
The prize in the Zion lottery sweepstakes is not just Williamson. It’s what comes with him. It’s who comes with him. The NBA is all about forming super teams, and the players do the forming themselves. It takes a core of two or three superstars to win a title. The Warriors are the latest franchise to prove it. Wherever the kid with the 6-7, 284-pound frame and the 40-inch-plus vertical leap goes, superstars are sure to follow.
The Bulls have been awful at getting big-time free agents. This goes back to Michael Jordan’s unpleasant departure from Chicago after the 1998 championship. Players around the league revered him, and there was no way in the world they were going to sign with a franchise that was viewed as disrespectful to the greatest performer in history. Whether that view was based on fact didn’t matter.
By the time the taint eventually lifted, it became clear that the Bulls didn’t know how to win, a lesser sin but a biggie nonetheless.
That’s how a team struts into free agency and winds up with Carlos Boozer, Ben Wallace, Pau Gasol and the fumes of Dwyane Wade’s career. You can have all the cap space in the world, but if a top player doesn’t see a legitimate chance to win, he’ll look elsewhere.
Will a superstar want to sign with the Bulls because they have Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine? The Bulls’ history says no, resoundingly. But add Williamson to that group, and everything changes. The NBA is hopelessly in love with him. He’s LeBron when LeBron was 18. And stars will flock to him, even if they might not like what they’ve heard about Bulls vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman.
The Bulls are rebuilding, but they don’t seem to understand that the whole aim of this tanking exercise is Williamson. They haven’t lost enough games yet this season to be one of the worst three teams in the league. The three teams that finish at the bottom each will have a 14 percent chance of getting the top pick in the May 14 lottery. The Bulls, with the fourth-worst record, would have a 12.5 percent chance if the lottery were held today. The difference, 1.5 percent, might not seem like much, but if it were the difference between winning several NBA titles and not, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to close the gap?
That top pick almost surely will be Williamson. To very much belabor the point, getting the top pick this year is not just about getting him. It’s the effect it will have on all the quality players who might be willing to sacrifice money to play with him over the next 10 to 15 years.
There’s a huge difference between Williamson and Duke teammate R.J. Barrett, who many predict will be the second overall pick in the draft. Perhaps time will prove that Barrett is Williamson’s equal or better, but the perception among NBA players is that Zion is the one to whom to hitch a wagon. Perception is everything among players.
The Bulls are betting on luck. They want their young roster to develop, even if it’s at the expense of hurting their draft position. They’re beating teams with worse records, meaning that crossed fingers are the franchise’s main weapons for getting Williamson. That’s not a strategy. That’s a head-shaker and an eye-roller.
The Bulls could indeed luck out and get the first overall pick. But you’d think with so much at stake, they’d do whatever it takes to get it. One player, Zion Williamson, has the talent and presence to reverse all of the team’s bad mistakes of the last 20 years. So add “miracle worker’’ to his list of skills.