If the NBA fails to resume the 2019-20 season, Zion Williamson’s rookie campaign should be looked upon as nothing short of sensational.
Billed as one of the best prospects to ever come out of college, Williamson lived up to the hype and even exceeded it in some ways. Zion posted 36.6 points and 10.5 rebounds per 100 possessions on 62.4% true shooting during his 19 games of action. Only 25 other seasons in NBA history have been recorded on Basketball Reference with that stat line, and possibly with the lone exception of Amare Stoudemire, every single member on that list is a Hall of Famer or will be one day.
More impressively, Zion Williamson contributed to winning basketball in an incredibly meaningful way. The Pelicans finished Zion’s 19 games with a 10-9 record and were in contention for the eight seed before the league’s coronavirus suspension halted play. Zion himself reached 43rd in Player Impact Plus Minus (+2.06), despite playing just over half of the thousand minutes PIPM requires to stabilize. Out of five man lineups that played over 100 minutes, New Orleans’ starters including Zion posted the second best net rating in the NBA.
Zion Williamson was inarguably dominant and made a case for himself as the 2020 Rookie of the Year despite a serious games played deficit to Ja Morant. Although he overwhelmed the competition often, Williamson showed clear flaws but avenues to improvement and we can see that clearly by looking back at his statistical profile and usage at Duke.
Despite Zion’s success being predicted, he obliterated defenses differently in college. Once in the NBA, Zion’s offensive role was almost exclusively as a big man. 92% of his minutes came as a four and 9% came as a small ball five. The largest chunk of Zion’s offense came on post-ups at 21.5%, and he was efficient, shooting 50.7% on post-ups which placed him in the 71st percentile. Among players who logged at lest 80 post-ups, Zion placed 11th in points per possession (.978).
Zion’s post-up prowess manifests differently than most; at 6-foot-6, he doesn’t wield a fadeaway like most smaller post-up frequenters as his shot profile looks more like a traditional center. Williamson makes it work, bludgeoning smalls and bigs alike with his freakish strength, vertical explosion and touch:
Zion’s increased post-up frequency from college can be attributed in part to a change in context. The Pelicans’ spacing is generally pristine, and even when it wasn’t, it was worlds better than what Zion enjoyed at Duke. Only one of Williamson’s Blue Devils, Alex O’Connell, shot over 34% from deep. Zion’s 33.8 3PT% placed him second on the team. The 2019-20 Pelicans, the NBA’s fifth best three-point shooting team, have eight players shooting over 34% from deep. Alvin Gentry’s fast-paced, creative offense allows for Zion to post up more than Coach K’s rather unimaginative offense.
Williamson’s offensive profile in the pros became less versatile and more inside oriented, with 59.2% of his offense coming from interior playtypes (post-ups, putbacks, pick and roll roll-man, cuts), as compared to 44.9% at Duke. Aside from his offensive role, Williamson’s degradation as a ball handler forced him away from perimeter actions.
In his rookie season, Williamson’s handle was consistently problematic as he struggled to string together dribble moves and was incredibly loose in general. 25 of his 41 turnovers were of the ‘lost ball’ variety, as compared to bad passes. When Williamson attacked defenses from the arc, he often fumbled the ball before reaching the hoop:
Improving one’s handle is difficult, but Zion Williamson showed a far tighter and more dynamic handle in college, along with more craft as a driver on the whole. He excelled in perimeter playtypes in college, placing in the 89th percentile of isolations and 99th percentile as a pick and roll ball handler — granted that sample was small.
Though Zion’s handle was never overly complex, he had multiple moves in his toolbox that he could wield reliably, notably his in-and-out dribble, but also crossovers and spins. For a human as massive as Williamson, his ability to beat defenders off of the dribble, change directions and explode out of breaks was special:
Aside from his raw ballhandling ability, arguably Zion’s most devastating weapon, his hop step, has been absent in the NBA. At Duke, Zion would unleash lateral explosion reminiscent of Barry Sanders, exploding past helpless defenders with jump cuts:
When Zion’s handle held up well enough for him to execute perimeter assaults in the NBA, the results were devastating, as most defenders lack the size or the strength to contend with Williamson’s pure physical tools:
Zion’s weaker handle also altered his role in transition as well as in the half court. In the NBA, only 13.7% of his transition possessions came as a ballhandler and he produced an abysmal 0.5 points per possession on those plays. Again, his loose handle was a major culprit, stopping fastbreaks and leaving points on the table. Most of Williamson’s transition volume came as a gunner, sprinting up the floor for alley oops or sealing defenders for early post scores:
Again, this usage starkly contrasts Zion’s transition role at Duke, where 43.9% of his transition possessions came as a ball handler to great success, producing 1.209 points per possession on those plays. Williamson obliterated defenses by grabbing rebounds and pushing, his speed, handle and passing leading to easy buckets aplenty in the open floor:
Heading into (possibly) his first offseason, Williamson will have the chance to continue improving and build upon his fantastic rookie season. With most players, adding skills like advanced handling is not easily projectable. But with Zion, envisioning perimeter improvement is conceivable because he’s already been a more than competent perimeter weapon before in his basketball career.
Zion Williamson is carving out a clear path to superstardom after displaying all-star level impact as a rookie in a fairly unique manner. He has already proven this play style to be capable of success in the NBA, and he can achieve superstardom, assuming improvement on the margins and defensively, playing the way he has. If Williamson’s perimeter skill improves, be it his handle or even his shot, he has a legitimate chance to take the throne as the NBA’s best player and lead the Pelicans to multiple titles.