At long last, Zion Williamson is ready to hit the hardwood as the rookie is expected to make is highly anticipated debut on Thursday against the San Antonio Spurs.
The No. 1 overall pick in last June's draft has been sidelined since the middle of October due to a torn right lateral meniscus that required arthroscopic surgery. Prior to the injury, he appeared in four preseason games with the Pelicans and put his superstar potential on full display with averages of 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists in only 27.2 minutes per contest.
Williamson got his preseason started with a 16-point dunk-a-thon against the Atlanta Hawks, followed by a 29-point masterpiece against the Chicago Bulls in which he made 12 of his 13 shot attempts and a 26-point performance against the always stingy Utah Jazz. In his final outing, he led the Pelicans to a comeback win over the San Antonio Spurs with 22 points and 10 rebounds on 8-for-11 shooting from the field.
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Williams finished the preseason shooting 71.4 percent from the field, an absurd mark for any player, mind alone a forward who is listed at 6-foot-7. It's even more impressive considering all but one of his field goals came in the paint, where some believed he'd struggle to score with the same regularity in the NBA than in college.
It was only preseason and it remains to be seen how Williamson fares against better defenders in real games, but there's reason to believe that a lot of what he did will carry over into the regular season - provided, of course, that he makes a full recovery from his injury.
First and foremost, most of Williamson's scoring came within the flow of the offence. The benefit of sharing the floor with Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram is that he doesn't have to create all of his own opportunities. It would be one thing if he wasn't comfortable playing off-ball, but that doesn't appear to be a problem. Even though he attempted only four 3-pointers in preseason, Williamson has proven to be a willing cutter when he doesn't have the ball in his hands.
With his size and athleticism, Williamson should be one of the league's most feared cutters, even as a 19-year-old rookie. There's not much that can be done when he gets a full head of steam, as Hawks centre Damian Jones learned the hard way minutes into Williamson's preseason opener.
Assuming Williamson continues to embrace being a cutter, he should be the beneficiary of a lot of easy baskets in New Orleans, both this season and beyond. It's a work in progress - he admitted to catching himself standing still at times against the Bulls - but it was a point of emphasis in preseason for Williamson and the New Orleans coaching staff.
"We have to get him moving," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said of Williamson. "We want him in space. We want to play him in space. The way you can do that is you have to get him on the move. I thought we did a good job, and he did a good job and being able to finish."
The Pelicans already have a set designed for Williamson to get downhill in the halfcourt, called "Blade." The concept is simple but effective: Have a big man set a down screen on him in the corner following a pick-and-roll in an attempt to get him cutting down the middle of the lane.
The Pelicans broke "Blade" out several times in preseason, resulting in some big-time finishes for Williamson. Not just dunks, either. Williamson has had several jaw-dropping layups, proving he can finish around defenders, not just over and through them.
There aren't many players in the league today who have the power and finesse that Williamson does. The combination allows him to play much bigger than his height, so much so that Pelicans head coach will have the option of using him as a small ball centre against certain lineups and teams.
We caught our first glimpse of Williamson in that role in the team's win over the Jazz, and he had success against both Ed Davis and Rudy Gobert, the latter of whom is widely considered to be the best rim protector in the NBA. He was simply too strong for Davis to handle and too agile for Gobert to stay in front.
It says something about Williamson that he didn't hesitate to attack either of them. He doesn't appear to be scared of anyone. That fearlessness helped him average 8.0 free throw attempts per game, tying him with Giannis Antetokounmpo for the fifth-highest rate in the league in preseason.
The same tools that make Williamson a dynamic cutter make him a force of nature in transition.
According to NBA.com, Williamson generated close to a fifth of his points in the open court at Duke and ranked in the 92nd percentile with 1.36 points per possession. He's much quicker than his size would suggest - Williamson was listed as the fourth-heaviest player in the NBA in preseason, believe it or not - and he can play well above the rim, making him the type of alley-oop target who can get just about anything thrown to him.
That bodes particularly well for his fit with Ball, who is always looking to push the pace and get out in transition. Sequences like this could become routine between the two off of missed shots and turnovers:
Lonzo finds Zion from WAY BEYOND HALFCOURT! 👀👏#NBAPreseason pic.twitter.com/HedPrYWki9- NBA (@NBA) October 13, 2019
All of that gives Williamson a high floor because he doesn't need the offence to be run through him for him to make his presence felt as long as he's being used in the right way, which is to say more as a big man, not as a guard for reasons we'll get to soon.
What will take him to the next level is how he develops as a creator. We didn't see as much of him operating as the primary ball handler in preseason, some of which is to be expected given the situation he's in, but he's shown some flashes of what that might look like.
The following assist was the best of Williamson on full display, drawing three defenders into the paint and dishing it out to a teammate for a wide open 3-pointer. He might not ever be someone who's among the league leaders in assists per game, but it's important for him and the Pelicans that he can punish teams for loading up on him in the paint, where he figures to do the bulk of his scoring throughout his career.
Then there's this play:
The change of direction. The speed. The finish. All while being guarded by a stout perimeter defender in Thaddeus Young.
All-around nasty stuff.
However, Young is unlikely to close out on Williamson as aggressively as he did ever again, and other defenders will be quick to learn from his mistake. With how dominant of an interior scorer that he is and how shaky his jump shot is, players are going to give him several feet of space whenever Williamson in control of the ball to stop him from getting to the basket at will.
As we've seen with Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons, not having a reliable jump shot doesn't mean Williamson won't become one of the best players in the league, but it does put a ceiling on his long-term potential and that of the Pelicans.
Just look at how much room Hawks forward Jabari Parker gives Williamson here, for example:
Williamson has at least shown that he's not afraid to take wide open 3s, but he's going to have to knock them down eventually to keep the defence honest, which is why it was encouraging to see him stick a 3-pointer in that game against the Jazz.
Not only would if make his life easier if he does become a capable 3-point shooter, it would open up the floor for his teammates. His defender will otherwise be able to help way off of him aggressively when he's not in the dunker spot, like Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen did here:
The Pelicans were still able to score on that possession thanks to a well-timed cut from Williamson that forced Markkanen to account for him, but it will be interesting to see how New Orleans' spacing looks in the halfcourt when he's not running off of screens and attacking the basket at full speed.
It also remains to be seen if Williamson can develop an in-between game. He attempted only 12 pull-up jumpers in college, of which he made two, and he didn't attempt a shot from midrange in preseason. If he's not much of a threat from the perimeter and only looks to score in the paint, he could become somewhat of a predictable scorer.
The other end of the court was a mixed bag for Williamson in preseason. As Preston Ellis of The Bird Writes noted, recognition was his biggest problem. There were times when he didn't make the right and missed simple rotations, leading to layups or open jump shots for the opponent.
That will, of course, come with time. It's rare for rookies to make a positive impact on defence, and Williamson still has a lot to learn before he's the positionless defender he has the potential to be.
For now, what matters more is what he's shown offensively against NBA defenders. And even though it was only preseason, he was every bit as good as advertised.
That's a great sign for the Pelicans and a scary one for the rest of the league as Williamson gets set to make his long-awaited debut.
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