Zion Williamson And Ja Morant Lead College Basketball’s Dunking Renaissance
Fans tuning in to Saturday’s marquee matchup between Duke and Virginia waited less than two minutes before getting what they came for. On an early Virginia possession, Duke’s Zion Williamson, the impossible freshman who moves with a guard’s agility while weighing 280 pounds, recovered a loose ball and hammered down a two-handed dunk with Old Testament fury.
Williamson is expected to be the top pick in this year’s N.B.A. draft and has been this season’s signature player — a quality so inseparable from his ferocious slams that a rare missed dunk last week against Boston College became a highlight in its own right.
The only other player who has come close to capturing the collective imagination as Williamson is Murray State’s Ja Morant, a 6-foot-3 sophomore who has played his way from virtual anonymity to likely top-five draft position on a diet of Jordan-esque leaping, flying slams.
That Williamson and Morant are this season’s college basketball folk heroes is in one sense entirely logical. Dunks are popular, they dunk well, therefore they are popular.
Yet in the context of recent history and current basketball trends, they are outliers as stars because they are relatively poor shooters from long distance.
Neither player can efficiently utilize the 3-pointer, which has cemented itself as the most treasured tool in the modern offensive game. Williamson has made less than 30 percent of the 47 3-pointers he has attempted. Morant is at 32.7 percent, below the Division I average of 34.3 percent.
Williamson’s attitude toward the 3-pointer may be best summarized not by any of his own shots, but by his sensational block of De’Andre Hunter’s ill-fated attempt late in Saturday’s game, an 81-71 Duke victory.
Their proficiency in dunking over long-distance shooting signals how special they are, of course, but also might herald a market correction in which basketball’s most reliable shot is back in.
In recent seasons, the defining players — the ones who made the biggest impacts and summed up the college basketball zeitgeist — have overwhelmingly been sharpshooters. Think of Oklahoma’s Trae Young and Buddy Hield, Kansas’ Frank Mason III, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and even Duke’s infamous Grayson Allen. The last 7-footer to be named player of the year, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, was not a high-volume shooter of 3s, but he made 41.6 percent of his attempts in his Wooden Award-winning season. Villanova won a title at the buzzer when Kris Jenkins hit a 3.
Yet this year’s watch list for the Wooden Award includes Williamson and Morant along with other poor-shooting yet exciting non-big men like Duke’s R.J. Barrett and Tennessee’s Grant Williams. Marquette’s Markus Howard has received comparatively little attention as this year’s exemplary high-volume, high-accuracy distance shooter.
The ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said dunks were emerging as more crucial to offenses because so-called midrange shots — 2-point attempts that are not from close in near the basket — have been so devalued by analytics. Get to the rim. Get fouled. Or take a 3. Those are the modern basketball credos.
Bilas said it was possible that, after several years in which the 3-pointer has predominated in top offenses, coaches have improved at devising defenses to stymie perimeter shooting — in that way placing a premium on wing players who excel at close range. But mainly Williamson and Morant stand out because they are standouts.
“We’re seeing more dunks because there are more spectacular athletes out there,” he said.
“A lot of guys can dunk, but he dunks on the way up,” he added of Williamson. “His head is literally at or over the rim every time.”
Recent seasons’ emphasis on the 3 was easy to understand if you looked to the N.B.A.’s discovery of the 3-pointer’s efficiency. The Golden State Warriors emerged as a dynasty thanks in part to their high-volume 3-point shooting, and even they have been surpassed by teams like the Houston Rockets who attempt 3s at record numbers while confining their other shots to the restricted area under the basket.
Meanwhile, the trey picked up a cachet that had previously been reserved only for the jam. Players who sank one from deep mimicked bow-and-arrow shots toward their benches, igniting their teammates; Stephen Curry, Hield and Young became the players youngsters aspired to play like.
And to be sure, 3-pointers have not gone away. This season they account for nearly a third of the points scored in Division I, according to KenPom.com, the highest ever and part of a steady upward trajectory. Teams are making 34.3 percent of attempts, which is just a few fractions of a percent off the past couple years’ heights.
What have positively plummeted are, as Bilas suggested, midrange attempts. According to Ken Pomeroy, KenPom.com’s proprietor, midrange shots — defined essentially as 2-point attempts beyond a couple feet from the basket — account for barely a quarter of total field goal attempts this season. That figure was 33 percent as recently as the 2012-13 season.
“The 15- to 20-footers are becoming extinct,” Pomeroy said in an interview.
With players setting up farther from the basket, the dunk opportunity has opened perhaps more than ever before. And into that breach have stepped an uncommonly talented crop of dunkers.
“This is the best dunking college basketball has seen in a while,” said Chuck Millan, a dunk coach involved not only with high schoolers but with the N.B.A.’s dunk contest, which will be staged Saturday night.
Millan highlighted lesser known players with sensational abilities, including Connecticut’s Kwintin Williams, Florida Gulf Coast’s Troy Baxter and Arkansas-Little Rock’s Rayjon Tucker — “a freak of nature,” as Millan put it.
As for Williamson and Morant, Millan said that, as with chocolate and vanilla, a comparison comes down to personal preference — although he may ultimately fall on Team Zion.
“With Ja, it’s the dunks in traffic, because he’s little, and the body contact he takes,” Millan said. “Zion, being 6-8, 280, seeing him be just so agile and almost ballerina-like, being such a huge dude — it’s more impressive.”