So, Zion Williamson is good.
Like really, really good.
It's weird to think that even needs to be said considering he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and looked like an All-Star in the making in preseason. But Williamson is only five games into his NBA career due to a torn meniscus in his knee that sidelined for the first half of the season. Having missed that much time with that type of injury, it wouldn't have been a surprise to see him struggle out of the gates.
Instead, Williamson has shown exactly why he was one of the most hyped draft prospects of all-time.
His numbers aren't quite what they were in preseason, but Williamson has still gotten his career off to a strong start with averages of 19.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in 25.0 minutes per game. That works out to be 27.6 points and 11.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, which are numbers we've only seen from one rookie since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976.
That player? Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid.
The difference between Embiid and Williamson, of course, is Embiid is a 7-foot centre, whereas Williamson is a 6-foot-6 power forward. It's rare for someone Williamson's size to live in the paint, but he's already proven to be nearly impossible to stop when he gets the ball anywhere close to the basket.
Other than an out of body experience in his debut that saw him knock down four 3-pointers - he's 0-for-2 from 3-point range since, for what it's worth - basically all of Williamson's scoring in a New Orleans Pelicans uniform has come in the restricted area. He's made 69.4 percent of his field goal attempts from that distance, a similar rate as Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Rudy Gobert, to name a few.
While they have each done so on a far greater sample size, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Williamson continue to dominate that area because what he lacks in height, he makes up for with his incredible speed, strength and athleticism.
He puts those tools to use on possessions like this:
DeMar DeRozan doesn't exactly have the reputation of being a defensive stopper, but that's not the point. The point is Williamson, a 19-year-old rookie who was playing the first game of his NBA career, bullied a grown man, using his strength to get where he wanted and his athleticism to score over a defender the same height as him with ease.
There were some questions as to whether or not Williamson would be as physically dominant in the NBA as he was in college. Those concerns have been quickly put to bed.
DeRozan is far from the only defender who hasn't had an answer for Williamson physically. Just watch how easily he scores on Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart, who is no stranger to matching up with power forwards and even centres:
Williamson's ability to overpower point guards, shooting guards and small forwards makes him a matchup nightmare. He's already a dynamic roll man - the amount of attention he draws when he dives to the basket is superstar-like and he's the type of athlete who can make a bad pass look good - but he has the size to punish defenders at those positions on switches by taking them in the post.
Close to a fifth of his scoring thus far has come with his back to the basket, and he ranks in the 75th percentile with an average of 1.00 points per possession. Again, small sample size, but an encouraging start nonetheless.
Williamson will even post-up players bigger than him. San Antonio Spurs centre Jakob Poeltl blocks his first shot on the following possession, but he gets deep post position against him and uses his lightning-quick second jump to corral his miss and score a layup before anyone can think about contesting his shot.
Williamson has a little Moses Malone in him in that regard - he excels at following up his own misses. Of the 24 field goals he has missed through five games, he has rebounded 12 of them himself by my count.
Teams will quickly learn to box him out when a shot goes up, but it remains to be seen if it's enough to keep from feasting off of putbacks.
What will help Williamson become a more consistent scorer against 7-footers like Poeltl is a consistent jump shot. The only real chance slower-footed defenders currently have at slowing him down in the halfcourt is by backing off of him in the hopes that he'll settle for 3-pointers instead of bulldozing his way to the hoop.
It's what Cleveland Cavaliers centre John Henson does here, for example:
He was still able to score on that possession thanks to a well-timed screen by JJ Redick, but the point remains: Williamson would benefit greatly from being able to keep a defence honest outside of the paint.
He doesn't necessarily have to become a high volume 3-point shooter either. Williamson just needs to become someone teams can't ignore when he catches the ball on the 3-point line, because the more aggressive defenders have to close out on him, the easier it will be for him to make plays for himself and others off the dribble.
That part of his game could come eventually. What's more important for Williamson this season is he becomes a better free throw shooter. With the way he embraces contact, he'll have no problem getting to the line - he finished the preseason tied with Embiid for the third-most free throw attempts in the entire league. It's what happens when he gets there (48.0 percent) that's been the problem so far.
Williamson was at least serviceable from the free throw line at Duke (64.0 percent), so the hope is that he won't make less than half of his free throw attempts all season long.
The scary thing about Williamson is that he still has so much room to grow. Not just as a shooter, but as an all-around scorer. Right now, he's generating very little of his scoring by himself. Most of his offence is instead coming off of cuts, rolls and putbacks - plays that make him more reliant on his teammates.
That he's still averaging close to 30.0 points per 36 minutes despite having a questionable jump shot and being more of a finisher than a creator speaks to how special of a talent he is.
If this is what the floor is for Williamson, his ceiling is going to be ridiculous.
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