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We need to talk about the Mavericks and Zion Williamson

It’s never too early for draft thoughts.

NCAA Basketball: Champions Classic-Duke at Kentucky Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

[Editor’s note: this piece was written before Wednesday night’s loss to the Utah Jazz]

The Dallas Mavericks finally won Tuesday night. After dropping six straight, they played a strong game against the Washington Wizards, who have had their share of problems much like Dallas. The win brings Dallas’ record to 3-7, tying them for the sixth-worst record in the league, with Atlanta.

As you probably know, Atlanta is owed a protected first round pick from the Mavs in next year’s draft, and if the draft was held today with the current standings as the order, that pick would convey, as Dallas only keeps it if it lands in the top 5.

Now, I told myself I’d only write about next summer’s draft class if Dallas lost Tuesday against the Wizards, but, you know what? Let’s do it anyway.

Opening Day for men’s hoops highlighted by Duke blowout

The college basketball season got underway while Dallas was taking on Washington, and fans got a sneak peek at some of the big names they’ll be seeing from now until late March. The featured game of the night was undoubtedly a matchup between preseason #2 Kentucky and #4 Duke, who boasts one of the most heralded recruiting classes in memory, and fully demonstrated why on national television Tuesday.

The Blue Devils led the entire way, eventually closing things out with a 34 point victory (the largest margin of defeat ever for Kentucky coach John Calipari) and a major statement/warning to the rest of the country. R.J. Barrett, the Canadian born wing who has been on NBA radars for years, led all scorers with 33 points, fellow stud recruit Cam Reddish had 22 points of his own, and Tre Jones (brother of Timberwolves point guard Tyus) handed out 7 assists without a turnover.

There was one more talented freshman playing for Duke, however…

Zion Williamson may not be human

So, we need to talk about Zion.

South Carolina native Zion Williamson is already an internet sensation, known even in casual basketball circles for having unbelievable hops and throwing down some straight up nasty dunks in high school. But, I admit, as exciting as his mixtape and highlight reels are, I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of him a few months ago. At 6’6 and a listed 285(!) pounds, there simply aren’t many successful NBA players walking around with those same dimensions. Compounding things, at this stage, Zion is also a fairly limited shooter, making less than 30 percent of his threes during EYBL play, on few attempts. If the shot doesn’t improve quickly, that may make his best projected position center, where Zion’s 6’10 wingspan and 8’7 standing reach would be the shortest on record.

So how does a 6’6 center who can’t shoot succeed? Well, firstly, by being one of the most unique athletes I’ve ever seen, in any sport. Zion is built like a mack truck, but he has supremely quick, even graceful feet, allowing him to dart away from defenders and slither into the lane effortlessly. If he has even half a window to launch himself, he absolutely explodes off the floor. His leaping ability is just astonishing – I audibly gasp sometimes watching the guy jump, even though I’ve seen more than enough tape of him to know it’s coming – and he’s such a powerful dunker there are going to be plenty of defenders who simply won’t dare try to block him.

All that would be fine enough to make Zion a successful college player, but what separates him from most -- and this was something I had difficulty appreciating from watching high school highlights against 5’9 future accountants – is that in addition to those athletic traits, Williamson is a highly skilled, extremely instinctive player, with an intelligent, well-rounded game. He handles the ball like a guard (though he’s still a bit left-handed dominant), is an outstanding passer for a frontcourt player, and he shows a lot of promise as an off-ball defensive playmaker, using his speed and quick hands to generate steals, or his leaping ability to soar in for weakside blocks.

Every missed shot or turnover by the other team is a Zion Williamson dunk waiting to happen, and the threat of the lob draws enormous attention, allowing others to get easier looks. Meanwhile, if he’s operating in halfcourt, good luck having a big try and stay in front of him on the perimeter. Even if you give him space and dare him to shoot, he can still beat you to his spot, and once he gets a head of steam you aren’t likely to avert his course, because he’s a damned tank.

At this point, it’s not totally clear if Zion is going to be the top pick in the 2019 draft. His teammate, R.J. Barrett, is a more traditionally appealing player, at 6’7 with good length for a wing and a #1 scorer’s repertoire. There are also others who could give those two a run for their money, including North Carolina’s Nassir Little, and the other Duke superstar, Cam Reddish.

Unheralded prospects shoot up draft boards every year, but it’s worth noting that this class is widely considered to be a top heavy one, with less depth than previous years. So, even if he doesn’t go first, it seems unfathomable that Zion could fall out of the top 5 at this point. If Dallas does end up keeping their draft selection this year, a Luka-Zion pairing seems almost too good to be true. Zion hasn’t been used much as a pick and roll man yet, and he doesn’t have an ideal catch radius at his size, but his skillset and body type make it hard to imagine he couldn’t thrive in such a role.

Should Dallas even want to keep their pick?

Stepping back for a moment, and putting aside the fact that talking about Zion four months after Dallas got Luka is the height of greediness, there are other factors to consider here. With the new lottery rules in place (giving each of the bottom three teams equal odds at the top pick, which in theory disincentivizes tanking), and a possible elimination of the rule requiring players be one year removed from high school coming soon, many have floated the idea that the Mavericks would be better conveying that pick now, so they will move forward with full ammunition.

This argument makes some sense to me. At the same time, I look at this team and I can’t help but think that they really do need at least one more blue chip talent. With Rick Carlisle at the helm and the notoriously impatient Mark Cuban overseeing things, is Dallas going to be prepared to do what it takes to get the Mavs that type of pick in 2020? Especially if the team stumbles after openly talking about a playoff berth in 2019?

All signs point to the team taking all the cap space they’ll have next summer and trying to force their way into the free agent sweepstakes. We all know how Dallas has fared doing that before, but this is pretty clearly how Cuban wants to operate. With several of their own players up for free agency, it seems like a definite possibility that the Mavs could buy themselves out of the cellar, but still not have the necessary roster talent to compete in the dreaded West. That would leave them picking in the back of the lottery (or late teens) for the rest of Luka Doncic’s rookie contract, if not well after that.

Final thoughts

Day-dreaming about Zion is fun, but the reality is that the Dallas Mavericks likely aren’t quite bad enough to have a shot at him, barring something unforeseen. Also, obviously, the team itself won’t dare think about the “T” word, for understandable reasons. They invested major resources in acquiring Luka Doncic and DeAndre Jordan, and with several veterans in the final years of their deals (Dirk, Wes, J.J.), the locker room will be totally focused on winning games, as they should be.

Still, the early season struggles have put the notion of “playoffs” even further out of reach, and if things continue to spiral downward as late January approaches, both attitudes and roster makeup might change. At some point it just becomes practical to decide whether you’re better off trying to be good or bad, because being neither is easily the worst choice.

In the meantime, I’ll just be over here picturing some Luka-Zion lobs…