Zion Williamson Is Evolving And Bringing The Pelicans Along With Him

Zion Williamson has played 14 consecutive games. It’s the longest stretch of uninterrupted basketball of his 47-game career, coinciding with his most prolific run, one that’s seeing his game evolve and expand. His dominance has thrust the New Orleans Pelicans back into the playoff hunt, sitting just two games out of eighth and three games out of fifth — the cutthroat nature of the Western Conference means they’re also a game out of 14th.

Regardless of how the Pelicans opt to proceed, whether it’s prioritizing on-court youth development or pursuing Zion’s first taste of playoff hoops, they will be in good hands. The second-year trampoline-in-sneakers is quickly delivering on the palpable buzz that engulfed him as a prospect and continues today. Over his past 13 games, he is averaging 25.3 points on 69.3 percent true shooting, bringing his season-long tallies to 23.8 points on 63.9 percent true shooting.

His recent numbers are due for some slight regression, but not much. That’s why this period from Zion is so promising. He’s shooting 69 percent at the rim on 12 attempts per game and 76.2 percent from the line. Even if those marks slip to, say 65 percent and 70 percent, roughly his season averages for each, he’d still be at 65 percent true shooting, an absolutely absurd scoring clip for any 20-point scorer, let alone a 20-year-old fewer than 50 games into his career.

The grandest shift in recent weeks is New Orleans finally recognizing Zion should be its offensive initiator and structuring a scheme around his creation abilities. Running possessions primarily through Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Eric Bledsoe did not prove fruitful because none of them consistently sew advantages to benefit the entire offense, particularly the latter two. Ingram has blossomed into a gifted scorer and tough shot-maker, while his passing vision elevates to more complicated, valuable levels, but he does not bend defenses anywhere close to the degree Zion does.

So, the Pelicans have reoriented their offense and given Zion the keys over the past 13 games. Since then, they rank fourth in offensive rating (117.6), up from 22nd (106.8) during the initial 11 games of the season. Rather than predominantly functioning as a roller, cutter, and post-up scorer, he is granted the freedom to dribble up court, conduct pick-and-rolls as a ball-handler, target mismatches, and collapse defenses.

Twenty-one of his 33 pick-and-roll ball-handling possessions have occurred over the past 12 games. More than 35 percent of his field goal attempts happen after at least three dribbles. Last season, just 13.5 percent of his field goal attempts came following three-plus dribbles. Over his first 10 games of 2020-21, that number only ticked up to 18.2 percent. Similarly, 11.4 percent of his touches span at least six seconds throughout this time, quite the leap from 1.9 percent during the first 10 games and 1.8 percent of last year.

All of this, really, just conveys the fundamental principle of Zion’s evolution: He’s empowered to do more with the ball in his hands, and it’s paying dividends for himself and the entire offense, something that is typically a hallmark and barometer for viability as an offensive engine.

Deployment that views Zion as a wing creator rather than post-up big or roll man provides a runway to best exert his elite physical tools and skills. He has the handling chops, namely an in-and-out dribble, to forge slight advantages, upon which he strikes. There’s a distinct convergence of suddenness, ferocity, and delicacy in his attacking. He glides to spots in an instant, overwhelming defenders and barging through them, but is control of his movement patterns, capable of swift changes of direction or contorting in midair around help at the rim. The way he matches his blend of strength and quickness is not common, and affording him touches with space amplifies these traits and explains why his efficiency has spiked in recent weeks.

Zion is the rare interior-heavy scorer who warrants the usage to log 20-plus points a night. He wields the physical tools to live at the paint, often navigating his own path there rather than having someone else set the table for him. He leads the NBA in shots in the restricted area (12.2) and is showcasing how efficient one can be with a heavy saturation of attempts inside. Most guys who rely considerably on production at the rim are liable to defenses scheming away their preferred shot profile. Zion differentiates himself from that crowd because containing him downhill demands a rare, specific archetype — a long, mobile, strong-chested rim protector — and the mental fortitude to withstand blow after blow.

That sort of player is quite difficult to unearth and genuinely restrict Zion because of this newfound usage. Wall off the rim and he’ll rev up to pile-drive inside, utilizing strength, body control, touch, and mid-air adjustment. Whereas crowding the paint on his post-ups and rolls has worked previously, it’s much harder to do when he has the luxury of scanning the floor, formulating a plan and kicking into gear from the perimeter. He’s unlikely to be 25-point on 69 percent true shooting good all season, but the ease in which he frequents the rim in this new role means much of it is sustainable. He’s among the NBA’s premier paint scorers — perhaps the best — and is now given the chance to amplify those skills with greater optionality on each touch. Opponents have thrown a litany of assignments at him during these 13 games and he keeps discarding them.

Either he’s too strong for anyone who matches his fluidity or too quick for anyone who matches his size. If necessary, he’ll run an inverted pick-and-roll or snag a hand-off to induce a mismatch. Station him on the perimeter to open sets and more than not, the opposition finds itself compromised.

By diversifying his approach, the Pelicans broaden their scoring avenues on any given possession. He has more space to leverage his talents rather than being pigeonholed into a role that almost guarantees a shot every time with little creativity in the process and fires him into a congested paint where defenders are loading up to slow him. Post-ups, flex cuts, and ball-screens as the roller are still incorporated into his arsenal, but they’re becoming merely features as opposed to the entire arsenal and that’s critical to maximizing his offensive upside.

Treating him as a primary initiator is emphasizing the ripple effects of rim pressure. Shooting gravity engenders traps and doubles — think Stephen Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard — to yield efficient looks for others, but the same applies to dominant interior scorers who create on their own like Zion. When he’s priming for a drive, he draws the attention of almost everyone on the floor. Help defenders try to identify the proper moment for a stunt, rotation, or dig because of his excellence inside, the product of absurd volume and quite good efficiency. Parlaying that attention into playmaking is easier when defenders exist within your line of sight, and his assist numbers over this 13-game evolution reflect that.

During the first 10 games of the season, he registered 16 assists and 29 turnovers. During his past 13 games, he’s trending significantly positive, with 50 assists and 29 turnovers. What once was nearly an 0.5 assist-to-turnover ratio has become nearly a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. It’s the product of easily discernible passing reads on his heightened face-up and driving volume that threaten defenders and provoke them to help off of their assignment in an effort to stymie Zion’s individual prowess. Nothing eye-popping arises from these assists, but the spacious openings he regularly crafts by luring defenses into his orbit is something nobody else on the roster offers.

Recognizing Zion is the team’s on-ball catalyst has accentuated the strengths of everyone around him. Ball and Bledsoe slide back into their optimal off-ball duties instead of being forced to moonlight as ill-fitting on-ball creators. J.J. Redick is rediscovering his jumper, benefiting from the 20-year-old’s substantial gravity. Ingram can key in on his scoring repertoire and budding passing weaponry instead of trying to shoulder the load as a flawed offensive engine. Ball (60 vs. 75 percent), Ingram (32 vs. 54) and Bledsoe (48 vs. 60) are all scoring on assisted makes substantially more since Zion assumed the reins. Every perimeter player in the rotation aside from Bledsoe — Ball, Ingram, Redick, and Josh Hart — before and after Zion’s promotion have seen their scoring output bolstered.

The first ~35 games of Zion’s career saw him excel in a limited capacity, serving as a play finisher who wowed with explosive movement skills and tear-down-the-rim jams. He was very good, but it felt like everyone was only witnessing one layer of his game. Over the past few weeks, though, he’s elucidating why he is such a highly touted rising star. He’s a legitimate offensive initiator who stresses defenses with finesse, locomotive power, complementary passing vision, and a deft handle.

It took some time for everything to coalesce but, finally, the Pelicans understand who they have in Zion and an ascension is underway. They’re exploring the depths of his game and the entire team is better off for it.