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Zion Williamson Eats Space For Every Meal

Zion Williamson flexes against the Knicks
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Games often involve asymmetric information, but when Zion Williamson has the ball at the top of the key, everyone in the arena is totally aligned on the facts. Zion knows that he wants to attack the rim with his left hand. Zion's defender knows that Zion wants to attack the rim with his left hand. The help defense knows Zion wants to attack the rim with his left hand. Every bystander—Knicks bigs Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, every single Pelicans fan present, you, me—is on the same page. It doesn't matter. One might think that knowing where Zion wants to go would make it easier for his foes to stop him from getting there, but as the Knicks learned on Saturday in a 96-87 loss to the Pelicans, it's irrelevant. Zion will get to the rim all the same. He put up 24 points (on 12-of-17 shooting) in just 28 minutes. Inevitability does not require an element of surprise.

If you think I'm exaggerating the consistency of Zion's attack, check out his shot chart through the first two games of the season. He hasn't attempted a shot outside the paint or made a shot from the right side of the floor.

A shot chart showing all of Zion Williamson's shots coming from inside the paint.

The scouting report on such a player should be equally simple: sag off of him, wall off the rim, throw some help at his dominant left hand. But give Zion space, as the Knicks did, and he devours it with a couple buoyant dribbles. That space just means he will be moving that much faster by the time he arrives at the defense, and then, without warning, he'll be airborne. Defenders boink comically off his shoulders, or are left ground-bound as he maneuvers over and around them in order to get off his patented Zion Buckets. By that I mean his ad-libbed, soft-touch layups from 2-10 feet, where he's still on his way up as the ball goes down through the hoop. He crafts highlight reels that could only belong to him. He knocked over 250 pounds of Julius Randle like a roll of paper towel. The shot-blocking 7-foot-4 shot-blocking wingspan of Mitchell Robinson was just another mild inconvenience.

After watching Williamson humiliate some of the most physically gifted athletes in the NBA, it's hard to envision a time when he was ever small. Asked about his touch around the rim, he brought us back to his youth: "When I was younger, and I used to go to the park with my stepdad, you know, I was a lot smaller than everybody, so you've got to figure out touch around the basket and different angles." He was a 5-foot-9 point guard back in eighth grade. Now he's in his fifth(!) year as one of the least schemeable offensive players in the NBA, trying to prove, after all these abortive campaigns, that he can keep this up for a whole season.

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