Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson takes the spotlight.
Context: Williamson scored a career-best 31 points against the Portland Trail Blazers this week, but he also tied his career-high with five assists. He is now averaging 2.3 assists to go along with 21.0 points and 7.7 rebounds on the season.
The possession: Williamson's best assist came in the second quarter, when he set fellow rookie Nicolo Melli up for a dunk.
Breakdown: Melli runs a handoff with Pelicans point guard Lonzo Ball at the top of the perimeter.
As Melli makes his way towards Ball to set the screen, Williamson relocates from the right corner to the right wing while JJ Redick and E'Twaun Moore help space the floor by spotting-up in either corner.
Redick is the more deadly shooter of the two, but Moore has made 37.7 percent of his 3-point attempts this season, including 40.9 percent of his 3-point attempts from the right corner. It's therefore no surprise that their defenders appear to have no intention of helping off of them as the play unfolds.
When Melli hands the ball off to Ball, Carmelo Anthony steps up to put himself in position to hedge or switch. Reading it perfectly, Melli slips the screen instead of setting a hard screen on CJ McCollum and then rolling to the basket.
Rather than leading Melli to the basket, though, Ball passes the ball to Williamson on the right wing.
That forces Hassan Whiteside - Portland's only rim protector on the court - to take a small step towards Williamson on the perimeter, freeing up the paint even more for Melli.
Williamson takes a couple of quick steps before he receives the pass from Ball as though he's going to attack the basket, but he instead chooses to thread the needle with a perfect bounce pass between Whiteside and Anthony.
After a dribble and a pump fake, Melli throws it down for his first points of the game.
Why it matters: As much attention as Williamson is getting for what he's doing as a scorer so far in his NBA career, he's been a sneaky good passer. It doesn't necessarily reflect it in the numbers - again, he's averaging only 2.3 assists per game, which isn't anything to write home about - but he's shown that he can make some high level reads with the ball in his hands.
That's only going to become more important as he continues to develop. Right now, Williamson is primarily a finisher, with the bulk of his scoring coming off of cuts, rolls, putbacks and leak-outs in transition. The better he gets at creating offence for himself, whether it's in the post, where he's already shown a lot of potential, or as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls, the more valuable his passing ability will be.
Williamson's development as a shooter will also help him shine as a passer, this possession being a perfect example. Even though Ball's pass to Williamson made Whiteside take one step closer to him, he still gave him several feet of space.
The reason why? Since going 4-for-4 from the perimeter in his debut, Williamson is 0-6 from that distance.
It hasn't prevented Williamson from averaging 21.0 points in only 27.0 minutes per game, but it will only make his and the lives of his teammates easier if he can become a reliable threat from 3-point range because defenders won't be able to get away with backing way off of him.
Just imagine if Whiteside had to defend Williamson a couple of steps closer than he did on this possession. What was a nifty bounce pass between two defenders probably becomes a simple lob to Melli at the rim. Either that or Williamson blows by Whiteside off the dribble for a rim-rattling dunk or a simple kickout to Redick, Moore or Ball depending on how the Blazers react.
That will come eventually. What's important for now is that Williamson has shown that he has the vision to pick teams apart as a passer. Not that he's going to become a LeBron James or Luka Doncic-type facilitator in his career, but with the amount of attention he draws whenever he makes a move towards the basket, the Pelicans don't necessarily need him to for his passing to become a real weapon.
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