Zion Williamson has been on a tear offensively. Ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans' game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Williamson was averaging 28.2 points while shooting 67.5 percent from the field in five games leading up to the Pels' blowout win.
On Saturday, he put up another big effort going for 21 points, nine rebounds while shooting 53.8 percent from the field.
It's still very early in Zion's career, but it's already clear to see that he's an offensive juggernaut. Very few have the power and speed to keep him from doing whatever he wants to do on that side of the court.
Defensively however is another story. Look, it's going to take time for Zion to learn how to play defence in the NBA. There's a learning curve on that end of the floor for most young players coming into the league. But how far off is Zion from being a good defender? Let's take a look.
Let's just get this out there, the Pelicans haven't been very good defensively this season. Coming into Saturday's game they were giving up 111.3 points per 100 possessions ranking 24th in the league. That doesn't fall on Zion, it's a team stat and they haven't been able to prove as a team they can stop anyone so far this season. But Zion hasn't exactly helped the cause. According to NBA Stats, with Zion on the floor, the Pelicans have a defensive rating of 113.9, when he sits that number goes to 101.7.
When the Pelicans built this team around Zion this offseason, they did their best to surround him around plus defenders. And so far, who he plays with has mattered. Williamson has played the bulk of his minutes in a five-man lineup with the regular New Orleans' starters - Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adamas and Brandon Ingram. The lineup hasn't been a disaster but coming into Saturday's game they were getting outscored by 1.9 points per 100 possessions. Adding Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who's having a good second year, to the lineup replacing Ball has seen the Pelicans outscoring teams by 9.1 points per 100 possessions. When Zion is on the court alongside bench players is where it gets ugly.
Williamson has played a good chunk of his minutes surrounded by the Pels' bench. In a five-man lineup featuring Zion, JJ Redick, Josh Hart, Alexander-Walker and Jaxon Hayes New Orleans has been getting outscored by 21.2 points per 100 possessions. Add Bledsoe to that fivesome replacing Alexander-Walker and they're getting outscored by 13.2 points per 100 possessions. Who Stan Van Gundy decides to play Zion with has mattered to the overall team success. It's early in the season and there's still plenty of time to figure what are the best lineup combinations for the team going forward.
Guarding your man isn't the only part of defence. Any coach will tell you that if you don't clear the boards it's a failed defensive possession. It's one area where the Pelicans are actually excelling. They led the league in defensive rebounding percentage before Saturday's game, but that hasn't been due to Zion's contributions. Williamson on paper should be a great rebounder. He's athletic, strong and coming into the league was said to have a high motor. All attributes that would lead you to believe he can be a great rebounder, we just haven't seen it yet.
Going into Saturday's game, Williamson had a defensive rebounding percentage of 13.4. Alexander-Walker, a guard had a defensive rebounding percentage of 13.1.
We've seen Zion battle for offensive rebounds and gobble them up like a young Charles Barkley, but that effort hasn't yet been seen on the defensive backboard. It might be the reason why Williamson's rebounding hasn't yet lived up to the potential he showed in college.
In his one season at Duke, he averaged 11.8 rebounds per 40 minutes. He finished with a defensive rebounding percentage of 18.0 according to Stathead. He had 14 double-digit rebound games as a freshman that season. So far in his NBA career, he's had 8 double-digit rebound games. He's also had eight games where he's had less than five boards in a game. It's early in his career, but Williamson has not yet shown the rebounding prowess that many believe he would show. We can be patient with his ability to guard in the league. It takes time to learn players' tendencies, defensive systems and everything that goes into being a plus defender. But how patient can we be with effort on the glass?
Is it time to panic about Zion's defence? No, it's far too early for that. Patience is the key here for Pelicans fans. There are some things he can fix immediately, but there are also some things that will take time.
But the reality is the Pelicans will struggle to be a team chasing championships without some serious growth from their most promising player on the defensive end. The good thing is they have many years ahead of them to help get him to where he needs to be.
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