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New Orleans Pelicans

Stat Just Happened: Zion Williamson can roll his way to success in Stan Van Gundy's system

"Stat Just Happened" is our new series where we'll pair an important stat with how it actually unfolded on the floor. Our aim? To answer key questions, uncover hidden truths and peel back the curtain on why some numbers matter more than others.

Today, Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans takes the spotlight.

10.0

According to NBA.com, that's the percentage of Zion Williamson's offence generated as the roll man in pick-and-rolls this season.

Why is it noteworthy? It made for only his sixth-most used play type on the season.

The bulk of Williamson's offence came on post-ups (20.2 percent), cuts (18.0 percent) and in transition (16.8 percent), per NBA.com. He was also more likely to score on putbacks (11.0 percent) and spot-ups (10.4 percent) than he was as the roll man (10.0 percent).

That's despite Williamson being one of the more efficient roll men in the league, ranking in the 64th percentile with an average of 1.16 points per possession.

Zion Williamson's scoring tendencies (2019-20)
Play Frequency Points Per Possession Percentile
Post-up 20.2% 0.92 51.6
Cut 18.0% 1.39 70.1
Transition 16.8% 1.20 69.5
Putback 11.0% 1.16 64.5
Spot-up 10.4% 0.77 18.6
Roll man 10.0% 1.16 64.1

You probably don't need me to tell you what Williamson has all the tools to be a devastating roll man. He's only listed at 6-foot-6, but the list of players in NBA history with his coordination, athleticism and power is ... not long. Most defenders with a height advantage (think Hassan Whiteside, Tristan Thompson or Steven Adams) aren't quick enough to keep up with him and most players with a speed advantage (think Marcus Smart, Jerami Grant or Thaddeus Young) have neither the strength to keep him out of the paint nor the length to keep him from scoring at the rim.

This is where the hiring of Stan Van Gundy as the team's next head coach becomes interesting.

Van Gundy hasn't coached since 2017-18, but he has plenty of experience coaching athletic big men. In Orlando, Van Gundy built a 4-out 1-in system around Dwight Howard, who was the most dominant centre in the league at the time. In Detroit, he built a similar system around Andre Drummond, who isn't the same calibre of player as Howard but made both of his All-Star appearances under Van Gundy.

Williamson is a completely different player from Howard and Drummond - he's not a traditional centre, first and foremost - but the way in which Van Gundy uses him on offence in the halfcourt could be similar to how he used Howard and Drummond by building a 4-out 1-in system around him that maximizes his potential as a roll man.

For it to work in New Orleans, it requires a couple of things. The first? Someone who can run a pick-and-roll.

In Orlando, Van Gundy had Jameer Nelson to pair with Howard. In Detroit, he had Reggie Jackson to pair with Drummond. Van Gundy has a few options in New Orleans to pair with Williamson in Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram, but each of them excels in different ways. Ball is the best passer of the group - nobody on the Pelicans assisted Williamson more than Ball this season - but he struggles to keep defences honest as a scorer, ranking in the 11th percentile as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. Ingram is by far and away the best scorer, ranking in the 65th percentile in pick-and-roll efficiency, but he's still not a big-time playmaker for others. Holiday is somewhere in the middle, although he ranked in only the 36th percentile in pick-and-roll efficiency this season.

Ideally, the answer would be Ingram - pick-and-rolls between him and Williamson have the highest potential and they're the two players the Pelicans are looking to build around - but it's hard to imagine him ever running as many pick-and-rolls as Nelson and Jackson did at their peak. For that reason, Ball will likely still run a fair share of pick-and-rolls, as will Holiday. Holiday has at least proven to be a solid pick-and-roll scorer in the past. The Pelicans can only hope Ball will improve in the years to come.

The second? A stretch big to pair with Williamson in the frontcourt.

What's unique about Williamson is that he functions more as a centre on offence but more as a power forward on defence. Because of that, finding the perfect big to pair him with is tricky. You're basically looking at players who can space the floor out to the 3-point line on offence but protect the rim at a high level on defence.

The Pelicans don't currently have a player like that on their roster. Their best bet at getting one is either through the draft, free agency or in a trade. It's why I included the Pelicans as one of the potential destinations for Serge Ibaka, an unrestricted free agent this offseason who is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career. While Ibaka isn't the defender he once was, he can still protect the rim at a decent level while being a legitimate threat from 3-point range on offence.

Some other options in this year's free agent class: Aron Baynes, Marc Gasol and Meyers Leonard. None of them are perfect - Baynes has struggled to stay on the court the last two seasons, Gasol is on a clear decline and Leonard isn't much of a shot blocker - but they each tick the box of a floor spacing big who can anchor the paint.

The good news for the Pelicans is that there isn't a huge rush. They're in the mix of teams that could make the playoffs in the Western Conference next season, but they have one of the youngest rosters in the league, headlined by two rising stars in Williamson and Ingram. The team that takes the floor next season might not look like a prototypical Van Gundy team, but they have the means to get there sooner rather than later, whether it's through free agency or by way of a trade.

Either way, any move the Pelicans make moving forward will now be viewed through the lens of how it fits into Van Gundy's system, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of Williamson.

It's what makes that one key number so interesting...

10.0

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