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NBA

Luka vs Zion foreshadows the future

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Luka vs. Zion (NBA Canada Illustrations)

Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson went head-to-head for the first time this week and it did not disappoint. Doncic recorded his league-leading 14th triple-double of the season with 30 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists en route to a Mavericks win, while Williamson continued his historic scoring streak with 21 points to go with six rebounds.

They star in the same division on up-and-coming teams which means that could be the first meeting of what turns out to be the next great rivalry. Both are incredible in their own right and figure to play a significant hand moving forward in discussions about MVPs, championships and legacy at large.

Since they're widely considered to be two of the best prospects in the NBA right now, three members of our NBA.com Global Staff joined forces to answer one question.

Would you rather build a team around Doncic or Williamson?

Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles) - NBA Canada: Man, this is tough. Not only because of how bright their futures are - there is no wrong choice - but because they're completely different players. It ultimately comes down to what type of team you want to build. In Doncic, you're getting a ball dominant guard tailor made for today's NBA. In Williamson, you're getting ... this generation's Shaquille O'Neal?

Since I have to give an answer, I'd probably go with Doncic right now. I just think it would be easier to build a team around him because he doesn't really have a glaring limitation like Williamson does. (I also had Doncic ahead of Williamson when we predicted who the 10 best players in the league will be in five years, so I'm not going to contradict myself).

Sergio Rabinal (@S_Rabinal) - NBA Spain: Despite the fact that both players haven't played more than two seasons, I'll go with Doncic. The young Slovenian player has proved in less than 150 games that he can be the key for a team that had no planned future after Dirk Nowitzki. Doncic has become one of the most dominant players without an imposing physical ability and showing an infinite range of resources, with and without the ball in his hands.

Juan Estévez (@JuanEstevez90) - NBA Argentina: I'm going with Luka as well. He is a much safer choice in my mind. Not only has he already become one of the top 10 players in the league, but he also looks much more durable than Zion.

At the same time, I could see Zion being the better choice if both reach their full potential and stay healthy. It's just that there are so many unknowns with him.

Rafferty: The durability is important. Not that Doncic has been injury-free this season, but I definitely have more long-term concerns with Williamson just because we haven't seen a player that big, that strong and that athletic in a long time, maybe ever. I do wonder how he'll hold up.

Rabinal: But what if both players can stay healthy for their whole career? I mean, we have seen physically imposing players like Shaq, Charles Barkley and LeBron James dominate the league before.

MORE: Ranking the best players in the NBA right now

Estévez: That's true. But isn't Luka also a physical force? In a very different way than Zion, of course, but I do think his height advantage over smaller guards is a big part of his game. It's not like he is 6-feet like Chris Paul.

Actually, he's taller than Zion.

Rafferty: But there are more players out there who match up better with Doncic than there are who match up with Williamson, right? Like, Williamson is already torching centres. He's struggled against guys like Brook Lopez, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, but those are Defensive Player of the Year candidates.

Rabinal: I think the key is how you build the team around that player. If you pick Luka, you have the chance to create any kind of team because of his versatility - he can shoot, he can pass, he can score. But if you pick Zion, you need to have a good ball handler like Jrue Holiday or Lonzo Ball in order to create proper situations for him to score. I mean, 75% of his points so far have been assisted.

Estévez: But isn't that exactly what you want from a centre in today's game? It's hard to win with a big man that is more of a creator than a finisher. Joel Embiid, for example, has much more 1-on-1 skill than Zion, but is he really more effective? Shouldn't you want the most effective finisher in the world playing as your centre? You can always surround them with more creative guards.

Rafferty: But is he a centre? I think that's his best position, but there are certainly some limitations playing him there.

Rabinal: He can play as a screener, but can he box out and match up with 7-footers? Zion is already one of the scariest transition scorers and he can score against anyone in the paint, but the lack of height is notable.

With Doncic, he has proven that he can lead a team. Will Zion do the same?

Estévez: It's too early to tell, to be honest. But with the height/centre scenario, I see more limitations defensively than offensively, although Luka has some question marks on that end of the floor as well.

Let's talk about that for a second.

Who do you think can be a better (or "less worse") defender? I'm really not sure, but I'm leaning towards Luka because of his rebounding and IQ.

MORE: The 20 questions that will define the 2020s

Rafferty: Zion definitely has a higher ceiling than Luka defensively, but Luka has a higher floor, simply because he's a guard, not a forward/centre. It's easier to cover up his weaknesses, whereas someone like Zion is far more front and (pardon the pun) centre.

Estévez: I know it's only been 12 games, but Zion looks lost on defence a LOT...

Rabinal: Defence is a key for the new generations of stars, but it is not a must to become a champion. Just look at Stephen Curry in Golden State. Those teams had the ability to hide his weaknesses defensively - although it certainly helps having defenders like Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green.

In that way, I think it's easier to "hide" a player like Luka, as Scott mentioned, than a "centre" like Williamson.

Rafferty: Again, the difference is Williamson has All-Defence potential because of his ability to switch onto guards and protect the rim. Doncic doesn't. It ultimately comes down to how confident you are that Williamson can reach that level.

Estévez: I'm just going to drop a couple of numbers here: 0.9 steals and 0.5 blocks per 36 minutes. Zion looks extremely limited defensively so far. And I agree, it's much harder to hide him than Doncic on that end of the floor because he's a centre.

Rafferty: You know what's funny, though? The New Orleans Pelicans have a better defensive rating with Williamson on the court. Like, WAY better. It's a small sample size, but still.

Estévez: Well, that´s not very hard to get if Jahlil Okafor is your substitute a lot of times...

Rabinal: One of the most important questions related to this is, how good will Luka and Zion be five years from now? And what kind of players do you need to find to become the next NBA champion?

Rafferty: I think they have the potential to be two of the five-best players in the league in five years time. I had Doncic second in my rankings and Williamson fourth.

Estévez: As we've gone back-and-forth, I've noticed a couple of trends. In a lot of areas, Zion seems to have the higher ceiling, but Luka the higher floor. It just depends if you prefer the high risk, high reward or just play it more safely.

But there's no doubt, both have the potential to be the faces of the league, not for the next five years, but for the next decade.

Rafferty: A scary thought is what Williamson looks like if the Pelicans can build a perfect team around him like the Mavericks have with Doncic. Because if they can pair him with a centre who can space the floor and protect the rim ... I don't know what you do. They might be so good offensively that it might not matter whether or not Williamson reaches his full potential on defence.

Rabinal: I think the Dallas Mavericks need something else to become a strong force in the West and make the most of Luka's potential. They could do with an upgrade at centre, but the Rick Carlisle style of play is predicated on good spacing, high pace and high volume of pick-and-rolls, so maybe they need another player who can play with the ball, a second ball handler.

Dare I say Giannis Antetokounmpo?

MORE: Is Zion heir to LeBron's throne?

Estévez: I don't agree with you there. Well, of course everybody wants Giannis. But it wouldn't be my first option to play next to Luka. I think Doncic and Giannis both need the show to run through them.

Ideally, I would look more to what the LA Clippers have built around Kawhi Leonard. Good shooters, good defenders, a "secondary star" like Paul George. Luka might be good enough to not need another mega-star next to him.

Rabinal: Do we all agree that Zion cannot be a creator with the ball? I think one of the main things of his game is his ability to collapse a defence and in a very different way of Luka.

Rafferty: I think he can. We haven't seen much of it yet, but he's an underrated passer and I think his handle will improve to the point where he can run some pick-and-rolls and isos at the top of the perimeter.

Not that he's going to be as ball dominant as Doncic, but the Pelicans also don't need him to.

Estévez: He showed some great court vision in his college days...

Rafferty: He's shown some pretty good vision in the NBA, too! He's not averaging many assists, but he's had some impressive ones already.

Estévez: Wait, did we just reach the conclusion that Zion and Luka would be great together?

Rafferty: Ha! Now that you say it, they would be incredible together.

Rabinal: A mix of Luka, Zion and Kristaps Porzingis would be the end for the rest of the NBA.

Rafferty: We can only dream.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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