Imagine for a moment the sight of Zion Williamson dribbling a basketball in your general direction. It’s enough to make one leap out of one’s seat and soil one’s bloomers a la an early cinema fan terrified by the moving image of an onrushing locomotive. Thankfully, this is just an imaginary scenario for all but a few brave humans. So please spare a thought for the NBA players who actually have to guard this enormous and agile gentleman, especially now that the New Orleans Pelicans star has been given more playmaking duties in his second year in the pros. Their bloomers are very much in danger.
Williamson was deployed primarily as a post player during both his one-year stint at Duke and as a rookie in New Orleans. It’s not difficult to see why. He is listed at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, but those metrics fail to convey the full physics of Zion in action. He is built like a cruise ship’s anchor. Grown adults bounce off his frame like Plinko chips. Why not put him down near the basket so he can bully defenders like he did in this impressive play during Sunday’s 120-115 overtime win against the Boston Celtics?
But while Zion is built like Karl Malone he also does a passable John Stockton impersonation. New Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy has chosen to unleash the 20 year old’s playmaking ability, describing him “as a perimeter player who can post up.” The results of the Point Zion experiment? Buckets.
It helps that Zion is comfortable with the ball in his hands. He was a pass-first point guard as a kid, before a growth spurt turned him into Instagram’s most popular dunking phenom. He has legit handles, which brings us back to the horrifying sight of him dribbling directly at you (or me, heaven forbid). For an idea of what that might look like, refer to this video of Zion bringing the ball up against the Memphis Grizzlies. Kyle Anderson, a crafty 6-foot-9 forward nicknamed “Slo Mo,” is tasked with the defensive assignment. Zion’s first step is, predictably, much too quick.
What happens when you put someone a little faster on Zion? Let’s watch Portland Trail Blazers swingman Robert Covington give it a shot. Covington, one of the league’s better perimeter defenders, goes under the screen, a logical move given that Zion has little interest in scoring outside the paint. Nevertheless, Zion freezes him with an inside-out dribble and glides to the hoop for the score. It’s the kind of skill you’d expect to see from Chris Paul, a point guard who’s small enough to get lost between the carpet fibers in Zion’s living room.
There’s more to being a playmaker than just driving into the lane. But when Zion does it, the opposing team has to send a platoon of reinforcements to barricade the hoop. When those defenders scramble to cut him off, Zion is an adept enough passer to find an open teammate. Through 28 games this season, Zion has improved on pretty much every passing-related statistic as compared to his rookie year (when he played just 24 games due to injury). He’s averaging 3.1 assists per game (vs. 2.1 per game in 2019-20), and his assist percentage (the number of Pelicans baskets he assists on whenever he’s on the court) has grown from 11.9 to 15.8 percent. He’s not Jason Kidd, but the fact that his assist-to-turnover ratio is better now (1.30) than when he didn’t have explicit playmaking duties (0.85) shows that he’s up to the task.
Oh, and he can also lead and dish on the break.
We’ve seen big guys as playmakers before. LeBron James and Magic Johnson cut similarly imposing figures, but they are and were capable of measured maneuvering around the perimeter. Point Zion, meanwhile, is a boulder barreling down Mount Everest, typically less elegant than awe-inspiring.
The Pelicans tend to use him in this role in short bursts (often at the ends and beginnings of quarters), creating a few hallucinatory moments every game when the most exciting player on the court assumes full control. The Pelicans’ Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram may be more natural playmakers, but that makes Zion’s brief stints at the helm all the more exciting and unpredictable. I’ve never been on an airfield when a hotshot fighter pilot decides to buzz the tower, but I assume there’s a similar feeling of unbridled ambition, the kind of joy that comes just before a court-martial.
Young teams are often described as “figuring things out.” Given their 13-17 record, the Pelicans certainly qualify, but they did show signs of progress in Sunday’s win against the Celtics, a game in which they overcame a 24-point deficit. Zion played a huge part, with 25 of his 28 points coming after halftime. None were more important than his go-ahead, and-one layup that gave the Pelicans the lead with 6.9 seconds left in regulation.
On the most important possession of the game, the Pelicans threw the inbounds pass directly to their 20-year-old power forward. This trust in Point Zion continued into overtime, when he delivered a key assist to give New Orleans the late-game lead.
OK, the pass was slightly off-center, and all credit to Brandon Ingram for gathering it in and nailing the 3. But it was Zion who made the play work, who got into the lane and found the open man. That’s world-class point guard play from a 285-pound 20-year-old. How scary is that?