Zion After Raptors: Burp
2:56 PM EST on December 1, 2022
The engine of the Pelicans' sixth-ranked offense is their abundance of shot creators—one little, one lanky, one cubic. In Wednesday's game against the Raptors, they lacked those first two options: C.J. McCollum (conditioning after a layoff for COVID-19 protocols) and Brandon Ingram (left big toe sprain). That put the ball squarely in the hands of the least answerable option of all, Zion Williamson.
Williamson's four seasons in the NBA have offered flashes of league-stomping brilliance between defensive dysfunction and lower-body injuries. It took until this Monday for him to log his 100th NBA game, but in the 101st he submitted his best career performance. Maybe the league is too larded up with offensive talent right now for his feats to stand out from the nightly 30-pieces, but at his best there's no player as dispiriting to defenders as Williamson, who slashed and burned every coverage in sight en route to 33 points (12-of-15 from the field), 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals, and two blocks. The 126-108 win put the Pelicans at 13-8, third in the Western Conference, even with some poor injury luck.
The Raptors have the eighth-ranked defense, yet are effectively tailor-made to be destroyed by Zion. Nick Nurse is an inventive defensive coach, always game to test out a wonky scheme for a possession or two. Toronto's current roster forgoes a traditional center, instead letting an array of wing-sized players fly around the floor in a haze of blitzes and traps. But it's just a cloud of gnats to Williamson, who is nimble enough to wheel out of danger, strong enough to blow through the help, and springy enough to cave in any remaining skulls at the rim. Early on in last night's game, Williamson seemed to realize there wasn't nearly enough bulk on the floor to impede his inexorable path to the basket. The result is as clean a shot chart as can be found in 2022, an old-school shot diet enabled by new-school spacing and a singular athletic talent:
It's a lot more fun to watch, though:
Marking Zion in pure transition is about as productive as walking across a freeway. Throw a whole roster at him in semi-transition and he'll still lance through it. OG Anunoby, one of the stoutest on-ball defenders in the NBA, was roadkill, just like the wiry Pascal Siakam. Scottie Barnes got yanked. Williamson's half-court offense is still progressing, but he's always had the vision to pass smoothly out of double teams, plus the ball skills to render them altogether irrelevant:
The Pelicans led by 31 in the third quarter, only for Raptors to get within 11 with just over five minutes in regulation. That's where the game became most compelling for any fan invested in Williamson's long-term prospects. He has made it clear since his NBA debut that he could get points on the board. Unfortunately he has made it equally clear that he'd leak points on the other end, as he struggled with the lateral movement for on-ball stops. He has enough humor and self-awareness about this flaw to accept a B- grade from a reporter, but it's been frustratingly unclear whether he'll ever replicate the demonic off-ball defense that he showcased at Duke.
Hints of that are beginning to creep back into Williamson's game at the NBA level, as he hurls himself into passing lanes and trampolines into help-side rim protection. After the Raptors closed the gap, he locked in his defense to notch two steals and a block, plays he often converts into instant buckets. With a good chef and good health on his side, Zion Williamson is finally in sharp enough physical condition to turn his biggest deficiency into upside. What will opponents do then? I suggest clearing the lane out of self-preservation.