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NBA

Just Get Out Of Zion Williamson’s Way

PORTLAND, OREGON - MARCH 18: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans reacts during the first quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center on March 18, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Modern NBA orthodoxy posits that an offense can only be as good as its spacing and corps of shooters allow it to be. Post-Thibodeau defenses got really good at helping on and reacting to the sorts of conventional actions that dominated in the early 2010s, which helped bring about Golden State’s shooting revolution in 2015. Now the whole league is full of five-out, pick-and-roll schemes designed to create loads and loads of three-point attempts. All you need are good shooters and a creator or two to get things moving, and you have a functional offense. But now there is Zion Williamson, and with him all sorts of new possibilities.

For the past month or so, the Pelicans have given Williamson the ball and the authority to create offense, which doesn’t seem like something that’d work. Nobody this cubic, this averse to shooting, or this inexperienced should be thriving in the sort of role Williamson is playing, and yet he is destroying defenses as a quasi-point guard. After a rocky start to the season, Williamson’s usage, efficiency, and playmaking numbers have all improved with each successive month, and he averaged a hair under 30 points per game in March and April while handling the rock for a suddenly improved Pelicans team that is hot on the heels of the Warriors for the final play-in spot. That is mostly because Williamson has been deputized to perform a relatively simple task over and over again: Drive hard at the rack. Turns out it’s very hard to stop a 284-pound player who can move like Zion can from getting wherever he wants to go. Ben Simmons is one of the best defenders in the NBA, also with an atypically large body for a “point guard,” yet this looked casual.

The highlight above shows the speed; that someone can move that fast while also being big enough to shrug off hard challenges from two big men and finish with this sort of panache shows the power.

It is important to remember here that Williamson’s rookie year was heavily truncated, and he never quite found his footing in his 24 short games with Alvin Gentry. He’s now played twice as many under Stan Van Gundy, and though he’s thriving on the ball now, he was not this good at the start of the season as a cog in an offense that sought to be too normal for its own good. Within that framing, Williamson’s inability to space the floor or credibly guard centers (he’s pretty short) presented a conundrum that Van Gundy mostly solved by playing Williamson alongside Steven Adams as a roll-man and cutter. It was muddy and bad, and the Pelicans started 5-10. The team’s been just .500 since then, though a newly freed Williamson has them playing their best basketball of the season. It turns out that sacrificing theoretical coherency in service of your once-in-a-generation talent is a smart move.

Williamson reached the peak of his new form late last week against the Sixers. New Orleans was missing both Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, so Van Gundy opted to let Zion cook. “Tonight, we just decided we were going to play him at the point all night,” Van Gundy said. “At least as long as he could go. He had the ball in hands all the time and the ability to make plays and everything else.” That “everything else” was tremendous. Williamson ended up with 37 points (two off his career high), eight assists (tying a career high), and 15 rebounds (an actual career high), all while handing the Sixers their first loss since Joel Embiid came back from an injury.

“It just feels natural to me,” Williamson said when asked about his new role. “I’ve been playing the game since I was four. At this point, it just feels natural. I’m still learning, but certain things just feel natural.” It unambiguously rules that Williamson just gets to drive around and through defenders all night, since that’s what he’s good at and it works for the whole team. Math bows to beef, as it should.