NBA Season Preview: How deep is Zion Williamson’s game?

NBA Season Preview, New Orleans Pelicans

Entering his third season, how much of his game has New Orleans Pelicans Zion Williamson unveiled?

With a full season officially under New Orleans Pelicans star Zion Williamson’s belt, we got to see the dominance that made him a viral sensation in high school, executed at the NBA level. Playing with a poorly built roster, under his second coach (who has since been fired), at just 20 years old, Williamson put up historic numbers averaging 27.0 points on 61 percent shooting. His 20.3 points in the paint per game were the most in a season since Shaquille O’Neal’s 1999-00 MVP season.

Through his first 85 career games, NBA defenses have not found an answer for Zion, but that has not stopped his game from being critiqued. In the age of Bag Twitter, where fans are dazzled by unnecessary dribbling and exaggerated step backs into contested jumpers, dominating the paint is not enough to prove your name should be with the best. Recently, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Finals MVP has done great work for the Anti-Bag Twitter campaign. Like Antetokounmpo, Williamson has been criticized for not attempting shots outside of the paint at any meaningful volume. This leaves many wondering, what really is Williamson’s ceiling, with such a limited, albeit impactful, skill set?

The truth is, his ceiling is high and his bag is deep, but until NBA defenses find a way to limit him in the paint, we won’t see him digging too deeply. A close look at Williamson’s game will show you an array of skills outside of the viral dunks. He shoots the mid-range jumper with a beautiful touch, even if he only attempted 16 of them all season long. His handles, court vision, and facilitating come naturally to the 6-foot-7, 284-pound force who grew up playing point guard. Film study will show that he has a well-rounded game. So why don’t we see these tools more frequently?

If you’re worried Zion Williamson isn’t skilled enough, you’re not watching closely

The answer is partially because his rotating head coaches are still learning how to use him. Stan Van Gundy introduced the NBA world to Point Zion this past season. That led to stat lines like 37 points, 15 rebounds, and 8 assist even with his team shooting an abysmal 18 percent from 3. That was in a win against a very good Philadelphia 76ers team. In that same game, we also saw a glimpse of how good defense forces Williamson to get deeper into his bag, allowing everyone else to see how special he really is.

In this clip, you can see Williamson beat his primary defender off the dribble and Joel Embiid rotate over to block his layup attempt. After the ball goes out of bounds, New Orleans immediately gives the ball back to Zion and he adjusts.

Here you can see Williamson notice Embiid is ready to rotate again for another block. Instead of driving into the same fate, Williamson stops and pulls up for a smooth jumper, something that’s been in his bag since he first started going viral as a teen.

Those two plays are a microcosm of Zion Williamson’s NBA career. He will take what is given to him; often that has been the basket. Williamson, a perfectionist, talks about how he doesn’t like to waste possessions. He rather not settle for a low percentage outside shot when he’s getting to the basket at will. It’s an admirable philosophy, one that many developing young players could benefit from.

To be clear, Williamson’s paint dominance is comparable to Shaquille O’Neal’s, but they are achieved in different ways. While O’Neal’s game was mostly back to basket and waiting for others to set him up, Williamson is able to carve his own way into the lane. Last season, Zion averaged 12.9 drives per game, around the same as LaMelo Ball and Kawhi Leonard. Also, 44 percent of his baskets were unassisted, similar numbers to Jaylen Brown and Tyler Herro. This alone demonstrates that Zion is already more than the limited player he’s often painted to be.

We need to appreciate Zion Williamson’s commitment to efficiency. Even if his game is simple — strength, power, quickness — it works to a historic degree. Until defenses figure out how to take the basics away from him, asking him to dig in his bag and get complicated just for the sake of complexity is missing the point. If defenses ever challenge him, we will see all Zion has to offer.

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