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Zion Williamson to receive playing time at small forward, could pave way for more special career

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Pelicans envisioning Zion at the 3 is good news for his development

Los Angeles Lakers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Soon after the New Orleans Pelicans had won the 2019 NBA Draft lottery — and the giddiness subsided, I dreamt about the days of watching Zion Williamson dissect opposing defenses in a manner similar enough to LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo.

One thing quickly became evident in my research after reading through all the various comparisons made in attempts to tie his dynamic abilities and enormous frame into one neat little package though:

There’s no need to pigeonhole one of the most explosive and dynamic players ever witnessed on the college scene.

Yet after his first 668 professional minutes and all the success witnessed inside the paint, many concluded Zion’s future in the league was to primarily serve as a big man. Who could blame them? According to the play-by-play data on Basketball-Reference.com, Williamson didn’t see a single minute at small forward during his rookie season, spending 92% of his court time at power forward and the remaining 8% at center.

Well, expect for that pattern to change in 2020-21, per EVP David Griffin in yesterday’s preseason availability event with media.

“People, I think, unfairly look at him as a big and being limited to being a 4/5. When we drafted Zion, the thing that excited us the most was the positionless nature of his game. So we really very much envisioned a time where Zion’s going to be playing the 3 and defending the 3. And he’s going to be on the handle and Stevens is going to be setting the screen.”

Tipping the scales at over 280 pounds, Williamson certainly looked the part of an NBA big man last season, and it was also hard to dismiss the number of times that Alvin Gentry’s offense often looked for Zion in the post. However, confining him to one area on the floor never made sense to me. He was just a year removed from doing practically anything he wanted from anywhere on a basketball court at Duke.

Sure, the power in his movements and the ferociousness of his dunks are the first things that stand out in the clip, but observe Zion’s immense skill set, most notably that first step and ability to handle the ball in traffic. In several of these highlights, he looks like a guard, dribbling with pace around defenders. We didn’t get a chance to see this talent on display very much last season.

In his 24 rookie games, Williamson always looked heavier, thicker than his ideal playing weight. His handle didn’t carry the same confidence or find similar results. He didn’t resemble the gazelle seen running with Blue Devils, carving paths on drives to the rim from the perimeter consistently or coming up with a flurry of show-stopping steals and blocks.

The hope is we will see more of the difference-making plays this season. The kind witnessed at Duke as well as the time before college when Jonathan Giovany wrote the following excerpt after seeing Zion back in 2017 during a USA Basketball camp.

He was impossible to contain off the dribble for anyone in attendance. He has an elite first step with polished footwork, outstanding body control and the ability to navigate tight spaces smoothly that belies his thick frame. He changes gears powerfully, generates an incredible amount of force with his finishes, has incredible touch around the basket and is also more than willing to do the little things, such as crashing the offensive glass, making the extra pass and playing with a very high intensity level defensively.

If Zion can prove competent at the 3 on both ends of the floor, that could be a game-changer — but one opposite of the current trend of small-ball which hopes to rely on Williamson at center.

Think of the mismatches Stan Van Gundy could create with a long-limbed lineup of Lonzo Ball at point, Brandon Ingram at shooting guard, Zion at the 3, Wenyen Gabriel at the 4 and Steven Adams anchoring the paint. Or if a greater veteran presence is desired, have Eric Bledsoe or JJ Redick replace Ball and Nicolo Melli stand in for Gabriel.

Minus the regular season games against the Bucks and Lakers before the pandemic shutdown — and the bag of crap dropped off in the bubble, the combination of Derrick Favors and Zion sliced and diced opponents. So why not explore even bigger lineups if it doesn’t entirely compromise spacing, especially coming on the heels of the Lakers championship run with traditional centers next to Anthony Davis and LeBron James?

This is a fun reality to contemplate, but first, Williamson must show capable of beating some wings without turning the ball over as well as staying with them defensively. I admit, it’s not the rosiest picture when imagining Zion chasing Duncan Robinson or Joe Harris all over the floor, so Van Gundy is going to have to pick and choose opportune moments.

On the flip side, giving Zion less responsibility in help defense scenarios as a big sounds like it could be a positive in the near term. Williamson never looked more lost last season then when trying to decipher the right space to occupy in pick-and-roll coverage or where to stand and offer optimal weak side help in schemes.

Can Zion eventually run an offense and control a game like Giannis? No one has the answer to that question yet, but I’m a fan of at least letting a 20-year-old wunderkind be given a real shot of fulfilling his potential. We saw a generational talent storm through the NCAA as a freshman, and while he certainly was no slouch last season, I think it’s safe to say that New Orleans Zion just didn’t look like Raleigh Zion in all aspects on the court.

Maybe that’s about to change, thanks to the added boost of not having any limitations in place.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.