In Zion Williamson’s second-season of his NBA career, the New Orleans Pelicans have made it more of a point to experiment with him making plays with the basketball. Perhaps the greatest opportunity to do so this season occurred on Friday night during the team’s 101-94 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.
With the Pelicans being without Lonzo Ball in the lineup against the Philadelphia 76ers due to a hip injury, there was a unique opportunity for the Pelicans to unleash Williamson as a primary ball handler to initiate their offense. Keep in mind, this was despite Eric Bledsoe also being active, so it wasn’t out of pure emergency that New Orleans made this decision.
“Tonight, we just decided we were going to play him at the point all night,” Van Gundy said, via ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. “At least as long as he could go. He had the ball in hands all the time and the ability to make plays and everything else.”
The results that Williamson achieved were quite robust. He recorded 37 points, 15 rebounds (career-high), and added eight assists to go along with it. He managed to do so with solid offensive efficiency, too. He converted on 15-of-28 (53.6%) attempts from the field and turned it over just twice. There’s room to improve in his 7-of-11 (63.6%) mark on free throws, but overall, he felt like a dominant force for the Pelicans.
“He played the game the way you’re supposed to play the game,” Van Gundy said. “He was just tremendous.”
The classic ‘get the ball to him in transition and get out of the way’ strategy was one that worked to just about the fullest extent possible. Not even Ben Simmons, one of the NBA’s elite on-ball defenders, could handle Williamson at the point of attack when he attempted to turn the corner and get downhill. This was even despite having Joel Embiid patrolling the paint at times, too.
The Pelicans went with “Point Zion” throughout their win over the Sixers. He was a load to handle getting downhill, frequently getting a bucket or drawing a foul.— Grant Afseth (@GrantAfseth) April 10, 2021
Some of these plays featured Simmons directly matched up on him, even with Embiid on the floor at times. pic.twitter.com/euRZYjzLjv
It’s not just about the scoring opportunities that Williamson creates for himself when he’s handling the ball in the open court. His presence commands substantial defensive attention and even if there is ball watching for a split second from an off-ball defender responsible for the wing, it could be enough to create a catch-and-shoot jumper from beyond the arc. At other times, Zion getting downhill can create a finishing opportunity for a relief option that is roaming baseline behind the defense after they step up to help.
“Point Zion” ended up making just about any early possession pass you’d like to see from him leading to a bucket for a teammate, too. pic.twitter.com/k0pdzqH4O5— Grant Afseth (@GrantAfseth) April 10, 2021
As ESPN’s Andrew Lopez quoted from Second Spectrum data, Zion Williamson brought the ball up against the Sixers 35 times throughout the game. That is a mark far greater than in previous outings throughout the 2020-21 NBA campaign. In fact, the previous bar was set at a most of 25 times. When the game reached it’s most important stage — the fourth quarter — he brought the ball up 12 times.
It goes well beyond just bringing the ball up and exploding to the rim for Williamson. The Pelicans have made it a point to involve him more frequently as a post-up threat at the start of offensive possessions. This enables him to get to a particular side of the floor for a clear-out opportunity to take the defender to task instead of always having to drive straight down the middle of the floor.
The Pelicans have involved Zion more as an early possession post-up threat, regardless of the matchup that's guarding him.— Grant Afseth (@GrantAfseth) April 11, 2021
The paint pressure he applies to defenses from the start of possessions requires the opposing unit to be attentive immediately, or they pay for it. pic.twitter.com/ypRhOrD6UI
The bigger picture surrounding Zion Williamson’s dynamic NBA potential was always going to involve getting the basketball in his hands more in opportunities to make a play. Whether that’s as a transition ball handler or by orchestrating pick-and-rolls within the half-court, New Orleans understands the best course of action long-term is to get the ball to Williamson and get out of the way.
“We want to get him more experience with that stuff going forward because I think that’s where his future is in this game,” Van Gundy said. “I really do. “He just needs reps and more and more and we’ve increased it throughout the year giving him more and more opportunities. We’d like to give him more going forward. We’ll try to build some more things for him.”
In general, the Pelicans have become increasingly more reliant on Williamson as a scorer in their offense. His usage rate was at 27.5% before the NBA All-Star break and it has since increased to 30.9% in the 13 games he has played since that period. He is handling the added responsibility quite well as his assist to turnover ratio (1.33 to 1.86) and true shooting percentage (65.0% to 67.1%) has each improved. What New Orleans is doing with Williamson is simply working.
The fact of the matter is that defenses have to get back fast and be tied together as a unit when they face off with the Pelicans. The full fury of Zion Williamson comes barreling down the lane early and often when New Orleans is advancing the ball, whether with him as the ball handler or by getting him the ball for an early post-up. Having these as options when simply attacking with speed for fastbreak points is not an option makes the Pelicans a more layered and difficult team to contain.