DON’T OVERTHINK: ZION IS GENERATIONAL

By:
Published: February 7, 2021

Zion Williamson, the high school mega-star, the Duke phenom who took the NCAA by storm, or some know him as Zion Williamson, the guy compared to Charles Barkley and LeBron James. No doubt about it, Zion came into the NBA as one of the most hyped prospects of all-time. The other-worldly athleticism to go along with his burly frame made him unique and, in many eyes, a ‘can’t miss prospect.’ These mammoth-sized expectations put on by the media, also by default, placed pressure on the Pelicans to win right away. In terms of the question, “Has Zion Williamson lived up to the hype?” The answer is complex and a resounding yes.

Currently, the Pelicans sit at 10-12 and are twelfth to in the Western Conference. These are disappointing results, especially considering the league – primarily due to Zion – awarded the Pelicans with 19 national TV games in the first half of the season. With the team struggling, the whispers about Zion and his ability have already begun. His defensive lows have been highlighted, and some have tried to minimize his paint dominance  by suggesting his game is “one-dimensional.” Newsflash, if a team is losing, it is probably not the guy averaging 20 points per game who is at fault.

I understand the game is more than scoring, but having a guy who can legit get you 20 a night on efficient shooting cannot be understated. Offensively, at 20 years old, Zion already holds a strong case as the NBA’s best finisher. His defense needs work, and I will address it, but there’s a reason for optimism on that end, mainly because Zion is a one of a kind athlete. The problem that Zion is often running into is that defensively he has continuously been a step slow. Whether it be on rotations or closing out, Zion has been behind. The lazy defense is a habit he has held onto since high school, and it carried through college despite being masqueraded by highlight-reel blocks and steals. Here are some clips from Zion during his time at Duke:

https://j.gifs.com/nxLK7E@640x360.gif
https://j.gifs.com/NLV4Gz@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/yoZYAW@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/0Y5QPG@533x300.gif

Do these clips look familiar? So much is fantasized about “Duke” Zion but he’s been the same guy in the NBA. Closeouts have always been a weakness for Zion but the difference is in college, he could get away with it because he produced so many turnovers that it masked his lack of defensive discipline. To often he either is caught flat-footed and blown by or he doesn’t closeout hard enough so the result is an open three. Poor closeouts are a problem that Stan Van Gundy has repeatedly hinted at this season. Zion has been a major culprit and the main issue is his lack of control when coming to a stop. These are bad habits that he never really had to hone in on because he has been a top prospect basically his whole life. I do not mean to chastise the work ethic or IQ of Zion, but rather emphasize a larger point that it’s pretty common for young guys to struggle on defense – especially players who have to carry a massive offensive burden so early in their career. This is a weakness Zion will have to eventually address as his career goes on but it is not something he should be killed for at 20 years old.

Another issue Zion is having on the defensive end is running through screens and guarding movement off the ball. In the NBA teams are attacking him and Zion doesn’t have the experience or natural defensive instincts to make up for the lack of awareness. NBA defense is a learning curve for most young players and Zion is no exception. The talent level from college to the NBA is stark and the offensive schemes are much more complex so there’s a natural adjustment period. Teams that have attacked Zion haven’t done it in isolation but have done it through movement.

https://j.gifs.com/4QlXJ0@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/P704Ey@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/ANB4Y7@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/2xjVwj@533x300.gif

Zion’s lack of impact defensively has been surprising, especially considering his defense was highlighted by many as his most NBA-ready skill. Here is a “Sports Illustrated” write up on Zion, where a scout compares him to Draymond Green defensively:

https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/Df_mdqYfa9KK9yGzkvKs1NMiCSsZmbrCvtCbnuYAwXtQCb4Dg5-CxjC1psmOdOtocMvBUoLg4w8C_7jhGNZhtefbtgd0RA0rY7QQhbNSFbxN96x80ppK5NH8ydMVDDG2AfOJvruQ

This wasn’t a one-off opinion, either; many pegged Zion as this super athletic, “switch everything” hybrid that can blow up pick and rolls and force turnovers. That obviously has not yet materialized, but have we seen enough to close the book on Zion becoming an impact defender? I do not think so. There’s many excuses that can be made for Zion’s defense so far: youth, lack of experience, and conditioning. All of those are valid at the moment, but at some point Zion needs to show some consistency at the defensive end of the floor. There’s no coincidence that the Pelicans three game win streak started when Zion played his best defense.

https://j.gifs.com/XLg4Go@300x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/xnYX0E@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/wVXWzX@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/jZEDm4@533x300.gif

Will Zion ever reach his full potential defensively? That’s TBD. Would Draymond Green look like the Draymond Green we know today at 20 years old? There’s a path to Zion becoming a good defender. He has the athleticism to stay in front of guards and his size makes it tough to get around him. Zion is at his best when he uses his size and speed combination to disrupt ball handlers. More often than not Zion will be the best athlete on the floor so using that to his advantage while he learns the NBA game will help him make an impact as he learns the nuances of NBA defense. Sure, it won’t be perfect, but mistakes can be excused if an effort is present and that’s what Zion needs to improve on. He needs to be more engaged when off the ball, and be more aggressive when guarding on it. The Pelicans’ positives are that Zion’s problems are not because he lacks the physical ability, but that he is often late to react or caught ball-watching. These are the reasons why his minutes at the five have yielded poor results on the defensive end. A significant part of defense is recognition, and Zion isn’t there yet in his development to anchor a defensive unit. By no means does Zion’s defensive struggles minimize what he is doing on the offensive side of the ball. Too often, young players with high expectations are picked apart for what they lack, even when greatness is right in front of us. Expecting players to enter the league finished products is just setting them up for failure before they even get the chance to grow. Zion is that case. Sure, he has flaws, but he also has an elite skill-set that you can rely on night in and night out. He has shown why he has the potential to be a transcendent star by dominating inside the paint with scoring efficiency not seen since Shaquille O’Neal.

The lack of a jump-shot has been held against Zion. However, even next to a non-shooter he has shown that he can’t be stopped getting to the rim. His physical dominance, combined with a soft touch, allows him to finish in various ways. There’s been no match-up that has deterred Zion from getting to the basket and finishing. What makes Zion such a unique finisher when it comes to scoring inside is the combination of size and quickness. His rare physical gifts allow him to score over and through taller centers. Zion does a great job of using his body to deter shot blockers, and his deliberate moves to the rim allow him to finish before the defender has a chance to react. Unlike on defense, Zion knows how to use his body to his advantage on offense. If you try and guard Zion with a smaller, quicker defender, the result is the same. Post-ups and use of his size advantage make it impossible to defend him with smaller players. Per NBA.com, out of all players that average at least five post touches per game, Zion leads in field goal percentage – ahead of names like Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis. What makes Zion generational as a finisher is that he can do it at all levels. Zion can punish smaller defenders in the post and operate as a roll man and a ball handler. The versatility in the way he scores sets him apart from your typical inside finishers.

https://j.gifs.com/P704w2@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/6XnZJN@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/gZAz4r@533x300.gif

Now, let me hit you with some numbers. Zion leads the league in points in the paint, he shoots the highest field goal percentage out of all the top 20 scorers, and did I mention he’s the only 20 year old to average 20 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the field since Shaq? The bottom line is that there isn’t a team that is going to stop Zion one on one. That is SPECIAL. It is easy to understand the league’s investment in Zion; there hasn’t been a player like this in quite some time, and did I mention he’s a walking highlight reel every time he plays? Already possessing an elite NBA skill, Zion is just scratching the surface of who he will be in the NBA. Williamson is a player that you confidently build your team around going forward. Stan Van Gundy is on record for calling him one of the most unique players he’s ever seen, and it’s time to embrace that uniqueness.

https://j.gifs.com/0Y5QZ5@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/yoZYj6@533x300.gif

Zion has ready established himself as one of the most dominating inside presence in the NBA and has already started expanding his game beyond just scoring inside. A big criticism of Zion has been his lack willingness to shoot jump-shots. Personally, I think it was to early to worry about that, Zion is dominating where he feels comfortable so there has been no reason to steer away from what has worked. Now, with that being said Williamson has left room for optimism when it comes to his ability to hit outside shots. His free throw shooting has made a significant jump since he struggled early in the season jumping up to 68 percent. Zion possess a natural soft touch that carries over into his shooting form. Not a natural shooter by any means but Zion has already shown that he’s capable of knocking down an open three pointer, albeit on very low volume. Even if Zion never develops into a knockdown shooter just having the ability to shoot allows him to be a catch and shoot option off the ball.

https://j.gifs.com/r8POwp@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/ROZ9xE@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/0Y5QQL@533x300.gif

Outside shooting for Zion though is icing on the cake. What’s going to take Zion to that superstar level is his ability to make teammates better and he’s already to show potential of that. In his last 5 games Zion has upped his assist average to 4.4 and is now initiating offense for stretches. Zion is a willing passer and due to his unbelievable finishing ability he will always draw two defenders. Zion can find shooters out of the post and off of the drive and is getting more comfortable doing so. The Pelicans have already begun experimenting with “Point Zion” and it seems this may only be the beginning.

https://j.gifs.com/1WgRJV@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/E8J43Y@533x300.gif
https://j.gifs.com/ANB4vP@533x300.gif

The old cliché “comparison is the thief of joy” rings very accurate when evaluating Williamson. Trying to place a ceiling on Zion at this stage would be a fools errand. Straddled with franchise-changing expectations the moment he entered the NBA, Zion has already proven himself to be a player that is the cornerstone of a franchise. No, he isn’t the next Lebron, Barkley, or Shaq, but he doesn’t have to be for him or the Pelicans to be successful. He just needs to keep being Zion. 

3 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.