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Can Zion Williamson adapt to fit new-look Pelicans? It depends on these 3 questions

It’s been more than 450 days since Zion Williamson last played in an NBA game. With the New Orleans Pelicans star spending so much time away from the court, it’s been easy to forget just how dominant he was when he did suit up. 

The 22-year-old has missed 141 games through his first three seasons due to various injuries. Being on the sidelines that often almost makes it even more impressive that he’s only taken 85 games to prove he’s one of the most unique and overpowering offensive weapons the league has ever seen. 

Through Williamson’s first two seasons, he averaged 25.7 points per game while shooting an absurd 60.4 percent from the floor. His rare combination of brute physicality and explosive athleticism made him unstoppable around the rim. During his second season, he became the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 2001-02 to go an entire season averaging at least 20 points in the paint per game.

Yet, Williamson’s first two seasons were so special because he maintained that dominance in the paint while drastically changing his style of play.

As a rookie, Williamson played more like a traditional big man, doing most of his damage in half-court sets by posting up and roaming the dunker spot on the baseline. In his second season, he was given the freedom to unveil “Point Zion,” controlling the offense at the top of the key more like a lead guard.

Regardless of the style, opposing defenses found it almost impossible to stop Williamson from scoring with unprecedented efficiency.

As Williamson prepares for his fourth season with easily the most talented supporting cast he’s ever had, it’s still uncertain how he will blend his talents with a roster that looks much different than it did the last time he played.

It took months for Pels coach Willie Green to establish the “point-five” mentality he wanted to see from his team on offense. But once Brandon Ingram elevated his game and CJ McCollum came into the fold, the Pels offense took off. They went from being ranked 24th in points scored per 100 possessions before the All-Star break to No. 10 afterward. By the time the playoffs arrived, New Orleans was humming on that end, averaging 109.8 points per game in the six-game series loss to the Suns, one of the NBA’s top defenses.

Now, almost everything is about to change.

As good as they looked at times last year, the Pels would be foolish not to redirect much of their attack through one of the league’s most effective offensive weapons, even if that means Ingram and McCollum have to take a step back. There will have to be some compromise on both sides. Williamson won’t get to dominate the offense as much as he did in 2020-21. The team won’t be as successful as they hope if he does. They’ll need his scoring, but they’ll also happily use his gravity to open up opportunities for others.

Here are a few things I’ll be watching early in the season: 

1. How much will we see ‘Point Zion’?

The “Point Zion” revolution during the 2020-21 season represented a paradigm shift in Williamson’s career, completely changing what many people thought a fully-formed version of his game might look like.

As a rookie, Williamson relied heavily on his overwhelming physicality inside to be the focal point of the Pelicans’ attack. But as he started controlling the offense more often from the perimeter, he got to show his advanced shot creation skills. It’s rare to see a player his size so adept at navigating angles and manipulating help defenders this early in their careers. 

He also proved he was a willing passer. Despite knowing he could get to the basket almost anytime he wanted, Williamson enjoyed getting his teammates involved. He demonstrated an ability to see the entire floor. Seeing their young star’s capabilities as the lead ball handler was important for New Orleans because it showed how the rest of the roster needed to look around him. 

Still, I don’t think Green or Williamson wants the Pels to run an offense where everyone spreads out to give Williamson space to create every play, like Dallas’ system around Luka Doncic or Milwaukee’s with Giannis Antetokuonmpo. Green told me something early last season that hinted at his future approach.

“If it’s just pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll, teams make adjustments. Defenses are unique in the league now, and they can adjust to that when they know what’s coming. We want to put him in positions where he’s not just one-dimensional on the floor,” Green told The Athletic before an Oct. 23 game against Minnesota. “He’s unique, and he can score in a number of different ways. He can score on handoffs. He can score in the pick-and-roll. We want to get him in the post a bit more. We’re just looking for ways he can attack defenses and make it hard for them to scout what he’s going to do.”

Green was referring to Ingram in this answer, but I expect to see him adopt a similar sentiment with his usage of Williamson – and McCollum, for that matter.

Green thinks the best way to deploy his best offensive players is to put them through multiple actions that test defenses in different ways. Some coaches like to keep it simple and run the same sets until the opposing defense stops it – i.e., Luka pick-and-rolls or Giannis isolations. But Green sees the variety in his offense as a weapon that keeps opponents off-balance. In particular, we saw this with Ingram last year. He steered away from the heavy pick-and-roll style of Van Gundy’s tenure and became an offensive weapon that did a little bit of everything under Green. 

I expect to see the same thing once Ingram, Williamson and McCollum are all finally able to work together. All three of them bring unique strengths and weaknesses to the game, but they all can play interchangeably within Green’s offense. 

In the fourth quarter, I expect a heavy dose of Williamson and Ingram attacking downhill with the ball in their hands. McCollum will get his opportunities as well. But throughout the game, I expect each to be all over the place, scoring in different actions. This should instantly make New Orleans an entertaining offense to watch. 

2. Small-Ball Zion, or Nah?

What kind of big man is the right fit next to Williamson? While Point Zion became the biggest story of his second season, I think this topic could be the one that gets much more attention than expected once this year starts to unfold.

It’s a question the Pelicans’ front office has struggled to answer since Williamson arrived in New Orleans. Big, lumbering, defensive-minded centers like Derrick Favors and Steven Adams didn’t work. The team once hoped a bouncy athletic specimen like Jaxson Hayes could be the answer at that spot long-term, but his troubles handling physicality in the paint may be his ultimate demise. 

There’s a chance Jonas Valanciunas turns out to be the happy medium between those two. Valanciunas is an above-average offensive center with great hands and soft touch around the rim. He can even step out and hit a 3 now and then. But he also brings the physicality and rebounding presence needed to complement some of Williamson’s weaknesses. They seem like a decent fit on paper, but it’s hard to know because they haven’t played together.

One reason I believe the Valanciunas fit can work is that I’m less into the idea that Williamson needs a 3-point shooting center to give him space to operate. Williamson has proven he’s more than capable of scoring in tight crowds. Plus, there’s no guarantee sticking a 7-footer outside the 3-point line will make opposing defenses any less aggressive in their efforts to build a wall in front of Williamson. If anything, I’d say finding a center that can grab defensive boards at a high rate and defend bigs like Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert should be higher on than priority list than finding one who can space the floor. 

One of the quiet revelations during Williamson’s second season is that he built nice chemistry with Hayes on the offensive end. Hayes figured out where he needed to be as teams consistently sent extra bodies to keep Williamson from the front of the rim. Hayes parked himself right behind the help defenders, and he was rewarded with several nice lob passes from Williamson.

Williamson improved his touch on those sorts of passes as the season progressed and made a habit of looking for Hayes whenever they shared the floor. Williamson played nearly 600 more minutes with Adams than he did with Hayes in 2020-21 (1,063 to 487), but he still finished the season with more assists on Hayes’ baskets (17) than Adams’ (11).

This underscores that Williamson is more than capable of succeeding with a center who spends most of his time around the basket, so long as that center is a much more capable offensive threat than Adams was during his short New Orleans tenure. 

Valanciunas should enjoy life with Williamson. The baskets he’ll get will be much easier than most of the ones he got this season. Valanciunas will have to find some new spaces to operate on the court and get used to receiving fewer post touches than he got last season. Still, smaller frontcourts will have a lot to handle when dealing with those two.

The other aspect of this topic is how the Pelicans close games. How much Green will value the presence of a big like Valanciunas or Hayes on the court versus maximizing his team’s athleticism and outside shooting around Williamson. 

Van Gundy was reluctant to use Williamson as a small-ball five out of fear that it would cause too many defensive issues. Frankly, it’s hard to blame him, considering how poor Williamson was on that end during his second season. Per Cleaning The Glass, Williamson played 204 possessions at center in 2020-21, and those lineups were outscored by 4.5 points per 100 possessions. In the previous season, when Williamson had 126 possessions at center despite playing 37 fewer games, the Pels surprisingly trounced their opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions over that time. 

To some degree, we should chalk up these splits to a small sample size. Still, it’s tough not to think about how dangerous the Pels can be if they can unlock Williamson at the center position. The switchability on defense is essential, especially at the end of games, and the additional spacing and playmaking on the floor would make it even more challenging to defend Williamson.

Ultimately, the key to these lineups working is Williamson fixing the two most significant weaknesses in his game through the first two years of his career: ball containment and defensive rebounding. I’m not as concerned about Williamson’s effectiveness as a rim deterrent when another big isn’t out there to help him. The concern is how successful he will be staying in front of smaller players in those switch-everything defensive schemes.

Williamson’s willingness to take the necessary steps to improve as a defender will be a major theme of his fourth season. If he’s going to ascend to franchise superstar status, he needs to be more committed to doing those small things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.

Speaking of that …

3. Can Zion and Ingram work together?

Since coming together, Williamson and Ingram have said all the right things about their partnership and willingness to do whatever it takes to make it work. Despite Williamson’s extended absences, there have been times when the two of them have played well alongside each other.

But unlike some of the other great duos around the league, Williamson and Ingram are still learning how to work well together. Even when we saw the Pelicans play well with both on the court, it often felt like a “your turn, my turn” style of offense.

Some of that falls on their shoulders. Those two have certainly spent a meaningful amount of time talking behind the scenes about what they can do to make each other better, but it hasn’t always translated to the floor. 

Some of it has to do with the X’s and O’s. Past Pels coaching staffs could’ve run more sets where those two were playing off each other, or at least forcing defenses to make tough decisions between the two. Green must prioritize those types of alignments as he adjusts his offense around his dynamic forward combination. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the offense should be Ingram and Williamson running a two-man game every time down, but why not make it a more consistent part of the attack when things slow down or at the end of quarters?

How exactly are opposing teams going to defend a Williamson-Ingram pick-and-roll or vice versa? Switching is a bad idea because it leaves a smaller player on Williamson. Drop coverage would make it easy for either star to torture opposing bigs in 2-on-1 situations. Trapping would expose the back side of the defense to 4-on-3 situations.

We’ve seen these two generate some beautiful offense when they have gone to the two-man game. 

For some reason, the Pels haven’t leaned into it more in the past. Adding McCollum in the mix as a ballhandler, screener or spot-up option on the wing makes the pick-your-poison decision even more difficult for defenses. 

In particular, Green should get Ingram more involved as a screener. Ingram only had 17 screen assists in the 2020-21 season, and that number made a slight jump up to 26 last season. Doing so will help Ingram get easier shots and prevent him from standing around and watching Williamson go to work as much as he did two years ago. 

Fixing that stagnation the other way is important as well. Using Williamson as a screener should help Ingram step into open looks more often than the constant double teams he had to fight through last season. 

The numbers would say Ingram and Williamson were among the highest-scoring duos in the NBA when they had a full season together, but there’s more they can tap into to bring the best out of each other. If they establish that chemistry, they have a chance to be up there with any duo in the league. That is one of the biggest keys to the Pelicans’ 2022-23 season.

(Top photo of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram: Stephen Lew / USA Today)

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