Zion Williamson will be making his NBA regular-season debut on Wednesday night. You may have heard. The first overall pick of the 2019 NBA draft is as exciting a prospect as any that's come into the league this decade, and is being covered in the media as such.
On Undisputed with Skip Bayless, Shannon Sharpe gushed over Zion's potential, and said he and Lonzo Ball could become the modern-day version of Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton:
The Zion-Kemp comparison is a natural connection, given Kemp was perhaps the most thunderous dunker the NBA has ever seen and Zion's calling card is dunks of a similar magnitude. But what I was taken aback by was the idea that Ball could become the Payton to Zion's Kemp. Sure, Ball is a similarly hard-nosed defender, but Payton is Gary Payton, one of the very best defenders the league has ever seen and a Hall of Famer.
And yet, when you look at where Payton was in his third season vs. how Ball is doing in his third year down in New Orleans, and they're actually pretty similar. Payton averaged 13.5 points per game, Ball currently averages 12.5. Payton averaged 4.9 assists per game with 1.8 turnovers to match, while Ball is putting up 5.8 assists with 2.8 turnovers per contest. They both average exactly 11.7 field goal attempts per game, but Payton shot 49 percent from the field, while Ball is only shooting 39 percent. Both play excellent defense on opposing point guards, but Payton averaged 2.2 steals a game while Ball sits only at 1.3.
Payton is one of the best defensive guards of all time and hovered around 20 points per game for a decade while earning an NBA-record nine-straight First Team All-Defense nominations. Ball isn't quite the disruptor Payton was defensively and still has a lot of work to do offensively before he can think about averaging 15 points per game, much less 20. But their early careers are comparable, and Ball had the added challenge of getting traded two years into his career, while Payton stayed with Seattle for a dozen years before getting shipped elsewhere.
Nobody will say Ball is anywhere near Payton's level as it stands, and he very well may never reach those heights. And that's not a bad thing. Not everyone can be a Hall of Fame point guard. But to people like me -- who initially scoffed at the mere hint of the comparison -- it's closer to the mark than you'd think.