Zion Williamson entered the league with expectations that no player could meet. His start as a professional was not easy – still it gave fans hope. Where is the expected future face of the league after just more than 50 games into his career?
Expectations are often a double-edged sword. Especially nowadays when the biggest talents are already known in the public by the time they are 15 years old and at times world-wide stars by the start of their professional careers. One such player is Zion Williamson, who at 20 has already gone through various stages of expectations. Long before he even played an NBA game, Zion was accompanied by an absurd hype – one that was calling him the saviour of the Pelicans and someone who would stylize the small market of New Orleans and even the entire NBA. Going into the 2019-20 season, the league planned more Pelicans games on national TV that his predecessor Anthony Davis ever had. Number one overall picks are not all the same. The charismatic Williamson had the attraction power of a LeBron James, a personality that would be a cashcow and pack butts in the seats. But reality didn’t go that way – though the Pelicans did sell many more season tickets. Williamson got injured before the start of the season and missed the first half of his rookie campaign. He debuted for the Pelicans on January 22 but was given a minutes limit. Still, in his 19 games, Zion put together dominating stats – until Corona came. Williamson played five less dominant games in the re-start in Orlando and his rookie season was over – a disappointment for many. And then when New Orleans started this season with a 5-10 record, the opinions began to change. Zion was already being considered a disappointment – someone who could not live up to the hype and someone who was overweight on top of that. A four-game winning streak started to “correct” the narrative and push the pendulum in the other direction. It’s complicated to figure out exactly where Williamson stands. Even though Zion has long been an NBA name, he has played very few NBA games, providing for a very small sample size. That is not always accepted as an excuse for the biggest names as observers are interested in either black or white, not gray. But that is exactly where Zion finds himself at this moment in his still very young career.
Those looking to criticize Williamson in his second NBA season start with his defense. He was considered a plus-defender while at Duke, but that has not translated to the NBA for a number of reasons. Like many young players, Williamson struggles at times remaining concentrated, providing a lengthy roll of video where he has slept on his rotations and left opponents wide open. New Orleans under new head coach Stan Van Gundy have the defensive premise of allowing as little action as possible near the basket, giving up the most three-pointers in the league. In theory, Zion should be an asset with his athleticism and quickness to be a shotblocker from the weak side and someone who can close out on three-pointers. But that has rarely been the case in both regards. And Williamson has also been prone to getting in foul trouble because he arrives too late.
When will the shot come?
Defense is at the moment the first, and long-term, the most important point of criticism for Zion. It’s still unclear if he isn’t as athletic as during his college days, if he needs to lose weight or if he just needs to get acclimated to the complex NBA game. But the fact is Willliamson is not helping the team on defense as the Pelicans allow about six points more per 100 possessions with him on the court than off it. The other main issue is his shot – or lack thereof. Not that anybody is expecting Zion to be Steph Curry, but there is too much of a one-dimension aspect to his shot. Williamson did get hot in his first NBA game and made four three-pointers, but he has only hit eight triples since then. Still his shooting technique looks clean and does give one hope for the future. But he just doesn’t shoot from the outside. And almost hardly from the midrange either. His heat maps look more like Rudy Gobert, with most of the damage around the rim. But the way he gets his shots around the basket have nothing in common with how Gobert goes about it. That brings us to one of the biggest strengths for Williamson.
Nobody stops him
Zion is like the battering ram of the NBA. Even as a rookie, he set the NBA record with 20.6 rim attempts per 100 possessions. The previous best was 16.3 by JaVale McGee in 2016-17 and only Shaquille O’Neal, Montrezl Harrell and Giannis Antetokounmpo have had averages of 15 over a season. Williamson’s frequency has gone down some in 2020-21 but it would still be a record for any player not named Zion. While Williamson has not learned how to use his physical advantage on defense, he is much further along in that regard on offense. He is so fast that he can get past almost every big man, and he is stronger than any wing. And his second or third jump is often quicker than his opponent’s first. There is really no way to stop him in one-on-one situations, which shows that he gets fouled on more than 22 percent of his shots. His shooting percentage of 63 percent around the basket can be better, but it should be noted that Zion is often confronted by two, sometimes even three defenders on his way to the basket. His decision-making is much better compared to last season as he often delivers the right pass out of the double or triple team. He is much more of an inside-out player than last season, initiating his own actions with more strength and confidence. “I think people think of Zion as an inside player. For me, he’s a outside player who wants to post-up,” his coach Van Gundy said. And that is accurate. Williamson has more drives than just about any other forward, is being isolated much more often than in year one and plays more and more as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. The way that Zion attacks the basket and the physical components he brings with him have never existed in the league. Charles Barkley is the closest example. But that era is long gone with the game and its rules also having massively been changed. That makes it less surprising that not even his own team has figured out how to completely use Zion.
Do the Pelicans fit with Zion?
New Orleans is still trying to find the perfect setup around Zion – in terms of both system and personnel. All veteran guards on the team have been subject of trade talks. The starting backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Lonzo Ball aren’t really known for their shooting. That causes a major spacing problem when faced with the fact that Zion hardly ever shoots from the outside and starting center Steven Adams does so even less often. The only really good shooter in the Pelicans’ starting five is Brandon Ingram, who is however much more active with the ball than without it. That makes it all the more impressive how often Zion drives to the rim. But back to the backcourt. Bledsoe and Ball represent another dilemma for the Pelicans. They both prefer different styles of play. Ball and Zion live off up-tempo ball while Bledsoe is more of a methodical, half-court pick-and-roll guard. And Ingram is sometimes a ball-stopper when he attacks one-on-one. J.J. Redick is someone who could create some space for Williamson but he has massive deficits on defense and is too old to bind long-term for the development of Zion. Experiments with Redick as the block-setter for Zion have shown how dangerous plays with Williamson as dribbler and a good shooter can be. Sooner or later, Nickeil Alexander-Walker or Kira Lewis could be a good partner for Zion.
The question about Williamson’s ideal position is still unanswered – which also depends on Zion himself. His offensive skillset screams for having four guys waiting on the outside. But defensively, he is not yet able to play the center spot. A logical solution would be putting next to him a stretch center who can protect the rim – someone like Myles Turner. But how many (good) players with his profile are there and how can the Pelicans bring one in with their roster? Adams and Jaxson Hayers are both centers without an outside shot – which makes the trade for Adams and the ensuing contract extension in the 2020 off-season seem that much more questionable. Still, the combination of Adams and Williamson has been positive with a 4.8 net rating. But how long can this combo work? There is also the argument that Ingram would be best served in today’s NBA as a power forward. But both of the Pelicans’ young stars would have to make drastic improvements defensively for that to work. That brings us back the beginning. Williamson is long from a finished product after about 50 games. In some aspects, he is already dominating and it would be conservative to say he would play at least five All-Star Games if he stays healthy. He already has one All-Star nomination under his belt. His offensive arsenal is already so potent even though he is only scratching at the surface of his potential and he seems to be trying out new things each week. In other aspects, he remains a riddle – which should not really be surprising when you consider the unique nature of his game. Zion doesn’t fit into any pre-existing scheme. He is unique. Despite everything – injuries, minutes limits, Covid-19, personnel and system changes as well as just learning on the job – Williamson reached the 1,000 point plateau faster than any player in the modern era. Those who have been disappointed with Zion until now must ask themselves what could he have done differently. With all the hype staring him in the face, Willliamson has put together a very promising start to his NBA career. And the probability is high that he will only get better.
by FIVE Magazine #177 – Zion Williamson – Text: Ole Frerks