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Future superstar: Zion Williamson on pace for unprecedented NBA season of attacking the rim

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All-world athleticism and a New Orleans Pelicans system actively maximizing his gifts has resulted in extraordinary rim volume and gravity.

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Zion Williamson is flawed. Eight games into his rookie campaign, he’s plagued by a loose handle, inconsistent jump shot and an oft-idling defensive motor. Yet, Williamson has already proved himself a dominant force and one of the Pelicans’ best players.

He’s posting 34.1 points and 12.9 rebounds per 100 possessions on a 60.6% true shooting, about four points above the league average. Zion’s sample size is currently small, but only six other players have matched or equaled Zion’s scoring volume and efficiency this season per 100. Four are All-Stars — Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis — and Devin Booker and Karl Anthony-Towns are the other two, both deserving of accolade for strong offensive seasons.

Advanced metrics paint Williamson as a positive early: PIPM (0.63) has him as a slight positive on offense (0.63) and a neutral on defense (0.00), the 108th’ best player in the NBA (this number likely increases with more games/minutes). RPM (2.43) likes him even more, categorizing him as a strong positive on offense (2.36) and about neutral on defense (-0.07), good for the 50th best player in the NBA. RAPM (1.39) has him as slight positives on offense (0.49) and defense (0.9), good for the 58th best mark in the NBA.

PIPM has him as the third most impactful Pelican behind Derrick Favors and Josh Hart. RPM has him second only to Hart. RAPM has him as the most impactful Pelican, as does luck-adjusted RAPM.

Why has Zion been so successful early? The major component of his impact and value boils down to one factor: rim gravity. Applying pressure to the rim the most vital component of offensive potency. Shots are more efficient than shots anywhere else on the floor. Rim attempts also lead to free throws, which are even more efficient than attempts at the rim. Attacking the basket forces defenses to respond with help, widening passing lanes to cutters and shooters. Simply, when players penetrate and do it often, good things happen.

With all-world burst, strength and vertical explosiveness, Zion Williamson can touch the rim whenever he pleases. Even when Brook Lopez, one of the league’s best defenders, concedes Zion multiple feet of space, Williamson explodes by him for a layup:

It doesn’t matter how many defenders plant themselves around the paint when Zion can catch, power dribble and dunk in less than a second, putting two on the board before the defense can react:

The Bucks defense has to load up on Zion’s drives or suffer the consequences in the form of layups, dunks and free throws. Before Zion swings the ball to the corner, count the green jerseys in the paint. That’s five Milwaukee Bucks trapped in Zion’s orbit, making the kick out pass easy. This is rim gravity in its purest form:

Despite the current negatives, Zion Williamson’s extraordinary rim volume and gravity makes him a top 50 range player right now and fuels his true superstar upside. In the half court, Zion is shooting 60.7% at the rim (non-post ups), placing in the 68th %tile. Including post ups and transition, he’s hitting 63.6% of his shots at the rim (per PBP stats). These numbers are good but unspectacular. Even with non-elite finishing accuracy, he ranks third in Andrew Patton’s rim gravity+ metric, only behind Giannis and Montrezl Harrell:

Zion’s gravity comes as a result of unparalleled rim volume, thanks to his 100th %tile athletic profile and New Orleans’ offense playing to his strengths. Per 100 possessions, Zion Williamson is taking 18.9 shots at the rim. Excluding outliers, that number, even accounting for Zion’s relatively few minutes played (215), is totally unprecedented.

PBPstats’ data tracking goes back to the 2000-01 season and nobody comes close to the rim volume Zion currently has. The 2019-20 has three players, including Williamson, shooting >15 shots per 100 at the rim, the other two being Antetokounmpo and Harrell, both over two whole attempts fewer than Zion. Since 2000, only two seasons have had a player take more than 15 shots per 100: Giannis in 2018-19 and Tyreke Evans in 2013-14.

As the pace of play has increased over the last two decades, teams take more shots and more shots at the rim. Over the last 20 years, rim efficiency and frequency has increased minimally, so this year’s trio of rim frequenters likely isn’t a drastic trend shift:

per PBPStats.com

But what this does signal is the NBA’s general increase in size and rise of mega-wing type players roaming the perimeter, living at the rim in different ways than the bruising bigs of old. LeBron will pass the guard to Giannis, Zion, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and future NBA players like Cade Cunningham, Emoni Bates, Adrian Griffin and more as the generation of oversized initiators who own the paint.

As for Zion Williamson, it is possible, even likely that his early rim production is outlier good. Will he sustain his historic rim volume over a larger sample? To some extent, he should, even if there is some regression from his best of all time pace. Zion is one of the best athletes ever and plays in a system actively maximizing his gifts. Through Zion’s first eight games, he led the Pelicans in usage (27.6%). That’s a rare feat for any rookie, let alone one on a team with multiple All-Star caliber players.

New Orleans’ offense plays at the third quickest pace in the NBA, 103.7. In the nine games since Zion has returned, they’ve jumped up to second, at 105.56. Already one of the five best transition/early offense players in the NBA, Zion thrives in the Pelicans’ up-tempo offense. Though he’s a menace grabbing a board and pushing, Williamson is most unstoppable in early offense seals or lobs, much like Giannis and Anthony Davis.

Zion’s symbiosis with Lonzo Ball’s tendency to be aggressive in early offense amplifies Zion’s value exponentially. After a made basket, Lonzo pushes with his head up, scoping out his target. If the straight lob isn’t there, Zion spins off of defenders, plucking a perfectly placed Lonzo alley-oop out of the air. With this level of timing, accuracy and precision, stopping this play is near impossible:

As Giannis does so well, Williamson will sprint to the front of the rim, claiming strong post position, often sealing against a smaller and weaker defender. Two Gary Harris’s probably wouldn’t have a shot at stopping Zion in the post with position:

Defenders already fear and respect Zion’s early seals and respond accordingly with multiple helpers. With Zion bullying Thaddeus Young on his way to a layup, Luke Kornet and Zach LaVine fixate on Williamson. Though the numbers don’t show it, he’s clearly a talented passer, with more than enough vision to make basic kickouts off of his gravitational pull:

67.7% of Zion Williamson’s offense comes from post ups, transition, put backs and cuts. The Pelicans have shown the capacity to unleash Zion from the perimeter, which should happen more as Zion continues to improve his handle and jump shot. Early in his career, he’s unrelenting in slicing through the paint off of pistol action and handoffs; he doesn’t need an advantage to penetrate, but he inundates defenses with one.

6-foot-6, 280+ pound humans should not be able to change directions this seamlessly:

Zion Williamson is 19 years old. His prime is, at minimum, half a decade away, assuming good health. Zion’s freakish rim attacking isn’t going to dissipate anytime soon. As his perimeter skills improve, he’ll only become more versatile and will be able to get to the rim in more ways. Playing in an organization loaded with young talent and committed to Zion Williamson does nothing but accelerate his development curve and optimize his already historic talent.