Updated: Oct 9, 2021
2019 number one pick Zion Williamson was the most hyped college freshman since Anthony Davis at Kentucky. When the Pelicans won the draft lottery, they knew they would be adding their franchise cornerstone for years to come. Accompanied by Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, New Orleans suddenly boasted one of the best young cores in the NBA. This article will cover what makes Zion such a unique talent and what can be expected from the Pelicans in the future.
Zion Williamson’s Player Profile
At 6’6” and 285 pounds, Zion truly is a freak of nature. His athleticism is what sticks out over everything else, breaking Duke University’s record with a 45-inch vertical. Explosion is the best word to describe how he moves on the court; every step, leap, and dunk is made with purpose. His offensive game is built upon his ability to finish at the rim, especially in transition. Zion’s secondary skills such as putbacks and cutting are also highly effective. He plays the game as it comes to him, refusing to force any highly contested looks near the basket. His ball handling and footwork are quite polished for a player his size, as he uses a variety of moves to create space down low. He plays a smart and unselfish game, finding open teammates with ease. For someone who has such otherworldly talents, Zion maintains a level head at all times.
During his rookie season in New Orleans, Zion only attempted 14 3-pointers, converting 6 of them. He went 4-for-4 from behind the arc in his debut game against the Spurs in January, only to go a full month without making another one. Once he develops a consistent jumpshot, his offensive game should prove nearly unstoppable. Until then, he mainly thrives in transition and near the basket.
Again, his sheer energy and effort stands out on defense. He never gives up on a play, refusing to stop until he hears a whistle. Many times during his freshman season, Zion would uncork his tremendous vertical to send shots a few rows back into the stands. He constantly wreaks havoc in passing lanes, reaching his quick hands in for steals. His combination of height, speed, and strength gives him the versatility to guard all five positions.
An important concern regarding Williamson entering the NBA was his weight. At 285 pounds, he came into the league as the third-heaviest player behind Boban Marjanovic and Tacko Fall. In college, Zion threw himself around like a human wrecking ball, doing anything necessary to help his team win. Despite his explosiveness, you have to wonder if injuries will become an issue going forward. He already sprained his knee in college and tore his right lateral meniscus last October. The future is extremely bright for Zion, but if he wants to play 82-game seasons, he needs to focus on his conditioning to prevent any further injuries.
Going Forward in New Orleans
In the Orlando bubble, the Pelicans were extremely disappointing. They entered hoping to earn the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Instead, they were sent packing after they finished 13th, subsequently firing head coach Alvin Gentry. What was most concerning about their time in Orlando besides their languid defense was their handling of Zion’s minutes. He left temporarily because of a family matter and missed 13 days of basketball activity. After he came back, it was said that he would be used in “short bursts,” which frustrated him. When Zion returned to in-game action, he looked sluggish and a far cry from the player that had boundless energy in college. In the five games he played in the bubble, he failed to record a single steal or block, signalling his lack of impact on the floor.
So why did Zion appear to take a major step back in Orlando? Nobody knows for certain, but it is possible that he did not use the in-season break to his advantage. He looked a step slower than his regular season games, both physically and mentally. He seemed to favor his healthy knee, giving him a visible waddle to his walk. His effort was inconsistent, potentially because of the knee, but mostly from his time away from the game.
Point guard Lonzo Ball also failed to give his all in the bubble. Although he averaged almost 7 assists, he also scored less than 6 points per game on 26% shooting from the floor and 19% from 3-point range. He later said that back in New Orleans, he was able to work hard consistently. In Orlando, he just couldn’t find a rhythm. Ball has never been advertised as a score-first point guard, but such a measly scoring output won’t cut it for a starter. Of course, his bubble stats are an extremely small sample size at just six games. To stay with the Pelicans, Ball needs to prove that he can score with consistency.
Ball’s chemistry with Zion is already astronomical. Watch any Pelicans game when they played together this season and you will find a connection like no other. While Zion is dominant with the ball in his hands, he is arguably more lethal without it. He loves to finish lob passes at the rim, often thrown by Ball. In transition, Lonzo puts opposing defenses on their heels, as he can lob one to Zion from as far as half-court. Ball’s ability to put passes on a dime is the perfect trait to accompany Zion’s rim-running style of play.
Besides Zion’s chemistry with Lonzo and Brandon Ingram, he statistically made them better in the regular season. When he and Lonzo were on the court at the same time this season before Orlando, their net rating of plus-15.2 ranked fifth in the Western Conference. When he and Ingram shared the floor before Orlando, they averaged four more possessions per 48 minutes than the Bucks, who led the league in pace. Zion’s impact not only extends to his individual statistics, but to those of his teammates as well.
Although the Pelicans were arguably the most disappointing team in the bubble, their future is bright. The team plans on giving Brandon Ingram a long-term extension this offseason, locking him up for a few more years. With a new coach incoming, who knows what their potential will be in coming seasons? If the New Orleans front office is smart in who they sign and re-sign, the Pels could become championship contenders sooner than expected.