Charting the next step in Zion’s star journey

  • NBA writer since 2010
  • Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
  • Author of two books

Still early into his second season, a brief polling of Zion Williamson surveyors verified why excitement has followed him since his early teens.

“If he gets an angle on you going to the basket, it’s over. He’s already one of the most devastating interior scorers in the league,” one scout said.

“Him getting an offensive rebound is like allowing a layup, because he’s got one of the best second jumps you’ll ever see, and he just goes right back up,” another said.

“He’s an unselfish player who really looks to be about the right stuff,” a third summarized.

Williamson is averaging 22 points and eight rebounds and shooting 56%. These are sizzling numbers for a 20-year-old who also happens to do at least one thing on most nights that drops fans’ jaws and lights up social media.

But it’s rare for a young player in the league to drive winning. With just 33 games in his professional career, Williamson is no exception. For the most part, he does not. And this is where the underlying reality with Williamson has already presented itself: He’s going to need to make a leap.

This is not meant to be taken as a slight; this is a part of the odyssey even for the best players. But it is also reality.

This is a big part of the job description for New Orleans Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy, who has to find a way to give Williamson room to grow while trying to instill better habits. Van Gundy is trying to remake the Pelicans into a defense-first outfit, which decidedly wasn’t the case last season under the up-tempo coaching style of Alvin Gentry, and that is a handful for Williamson.

“I think we’ve given him a pretty good leash,” Van Gundy said. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think he’s taken advantage of everything we’ve given him.”

Van Gundy has shortened the rotation and boosted the second-year phenom’s minutes, which Williamson has been grateful for after playing last season on various restrictions due to knee injuries. But he has yet to spread his wings with that playing time.

Williamson leans into what he already does well — his ability to score in the paint, use of brute force and tremendous leaping ability to create space are elite — but his offensive game still needs polish.

“We want him to take the ball off the glass and bust out and lead the fast break — that’s just one example,” Van Gundy said. “We would like to give him a lot of freedom.”

Williamson hasn’t developed any jumper to use as a changeup. He has taken only three shots outside 15 feet this season. This seems just fine, as his behemoth 16.8-point, first-season average in the paint put him in the realm of Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie output. But this reliance has its drawbacks.

He’ll likely always be a high-percentage shooter; most of his shots come within an arm’s length of the rim. But when it matters in the fourth quarter, his shots have been a little predictable. In this still-nascent season, Williamson shoots a ridiculous 64.3% in the third quarter. But in the fourth, when the clock constricts the court and the opposition stiffens resolve, that number plummets to just 46.7%.

Now, that’s still very good. And he’s gotten several clutch baskets for the Pelicans this season. But that drop-off is a result of how difficult it can be to score late in games near the hoop. And while Williamson is often the best jumper on the floor, at 6-foot-6 he is also often the shortest guy in the paint.

He’s had his shot blocked 23 times this season, easily the most in the NBA. Since his debut last January, he’s had his shot blocked 62 times — also the most in the league. You might recall that career debut when Williamson nailed four 3-pointers in a triumphant fourth quarter. He’s made only two of them since.

Williamson might never be a marksman, and might not need to be, but he needs some variables. His free throw shooting, which he has extensively worked on with well-liked assistant coach Fred Vinson, has yet to yield improvement. After an encouraging preseason, he’s just 62% from the line so far in season, slightly worse than he was last year.

And then there’s the defense.

“That’s where the accountability part comes,” Van Gundy said.

There are plenty of Hall of Famers who were weak defenders. Over the past decade, shooting and pace have led to a general deemphasis of defense. There are plenty of stars who do not excel at that end.

But this is where Williamson’s inexperience is most pronounced. He’s still learning technique and often finds himself out of position and struggling to recover. New teammate Steven Adams really helps the Pelicans’ defense and rebounding overall but often plays center next to the second-year, franchise cornerstone. That usually leaves Williamson to handle quicker but taller players.

When those opponents are shooters — often the case in a league in which stretch power forwards are the norm — Williamson has to play help defense and then recover to the 3-point line, leaving him a step or two slow. Even though he has dropped weight from last summer, Williamson lumbers. And in a pick-and-roll-heavy league, sometimes his defensive positioning leaves him exposed.

This is a departure from Williamson’s one season at Duke, where he routinely made big-time plays on defense with his athleticism. He averaged 1.8 blocks and 2.1 steals a game for the Blue Devils, many of them highlight plays. He’s had a couple of games in which he’s shown his quick hands and picked off some steals with the Pelicans, the quick-twitch shot challenges have largely disappeared. He has only 13 blocks in his NBA career thus far. Whether this is related to the knee injuries and some added weight is uncertain.

On a couple of occasions already, Van Gundy has elected to sit Williamson in late-game possessions or overtime for defensive reasons.

The veteran coach laments a lack of preseason practice — and now in-season practice — to work on building good habits. It’s probably Van Gundy’s top talking point early in the season. And with COVID-19 protocols limiting contact, there isn’t more coming anytime soon.

“This is probably the first time in Zion’s life that he’s really been coached this level of defense,” said one scout. “You can see Stan working, but it’s going to take some time.”

Time is on Williamson’s side. There’s plenty of footage out there of Giannis Antetokounmpo early in his career, when he was all raw athleticism. Stephen Curry’s defense early in his career was not good. More examples are available.

Much of what Williamson does great is impossible to teach, which is why he was the No. 1 overall pick. His stock is a “buy and hold” without question. But he is also just at the beginning of a journey.

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