Metu, the infrequently used Sacramento Kings tall man, found himself at the wrong end of a Zion Williamson Dunk Sunday that was one of the best slams of the young NBA season. Williamson tossed Metu to the right baseline, exploded to his left, and rallied with two dribbles before completing a left-handed poster that got the New Orleans Pelicans bank on its feet. Metu hitting Williamson on the head during the follow-through didn’t bother the 2019 number 1 standings, which set the Kings on fire for 31 points in a 13:15 shootout to help the Pelicans, a loss in five games to achieve.
The high point and efficient night of scoring was a reminder that Williamson can still move up despite the fact that he and the overwhelming pelicans flew under the radar earlier in the year. New Orleans (5-7) had to take some time to settle with a new coach in Stan Van Gundy and a revamped roster that includes several new starters and a variety of developing young players. After a hyped rookie season and a flat appearance in the bubble, the early results of Williamson’s second season contain promising signs and cause for concern.
The good news is Metu is hardly the only player trying to stop 20-year-old Williamson from attacking the basket. After knee surgery now more than a year behind him and his conditioning in a better place than last summer, Williamson shoots back to the hoop from dribbling, slamming the offensive glass, and diving hard to pick-and-rolls break up. A whopping 72 percent of Williamson’s shots come from within three feet and more than 96 percent from within ten feet. While length defenders sometimes limit his effectiveness, Williamson has strong scoring instincts and averages 21.8 points per game by regularly dominating color.
While Williamson deserves to hold on to what he’s good at, if he is to become a transcendent star, he has to fill his offensive game. At the moment, he rarely seems to shoot from midfield, let alone from the three-point line. If he gets the ball on the edge, he is almost always in attack mode. His sales far outstrip his assists and reflect the need to improve his ball handling, vision and body control. Pelican’s youth and below par three-point shooting have exacerbated some of these shortcomings.
“With execution, we’re still learning that we all have to figure out what to do when a player goes to a certain place [with our] Distance, ”said Williamson after a recent loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “Sometimes when someone is driving, three people cut and nobody to kick out. It’s little things that we need to fix. “
Van Gundy played all-in on faceball and paired Williamson with Steven Adams, a traditional center, to give New Orleans what is perhaps the most fragile forecourt in the league. This tandem requires some compromises. The Pelicans are in the top 5 when it comes to scoring on the offensive from five feet away, giving up the third smallest baskets in the restricted area. On the offensive, however, they occupy 26th place in three percentage points and give the most three-point points on the defensive in the NBA.
Williamson is part of the problem when it comes to the pelicans’ three-point defense. While he has great burst and jump skills on offense, he can move slowly laterally and late to get marksmen out of the way. He ranks among the leaders of the pelicans on hectic stats like distractions and recovered loose balls, but his limited defensive mobility can be exploited by stretching forward. New Orleans was surpassed by Sunday when Williamson was in the game. This is a reversal from last season when he finished 17th in Real Plus-Minus in the NBA. This value measures the impact a player has on the field of play.
Van Gundy said Saturday that he met with Williamson and Brandon Ingram, a 2019 All-Star, to discuss the NBA’s top duos, including the Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks.
“What do you have in common? They are all people who play both ends of the floor,” said Van Gundy. “They are two-way guys. My challenge is to create a better framework and distance for them [Williamson and Ingram]. Your challenge is to take the responsibility defensively, that they step forward and become better defenders and part of the solution at that end of the floor. “
New Orleans ranks in the top 5 on rebound thanks to its large front line and Van Gundy hopes Williamson can turn that strength into another reliable source of attack by getting the ball on the court when claiming defensive rebound.
“I’m more comfortable with it,” said Williamson. “Coach made me do it. He has the feeling that I can use myself offensively that way. Whenever I get the rebound, I’ll push it. “
A similar strategy helped unlock Blake Griffin and Antetokounmpo as they tried to develop their offensive games beyond the dunks early in their respective careers. As Griffin passed his 20s, he proved himself to be a skilled passerby, dependable midrange driver, and ultimately a three-point threat. Antetokounmpo struggled to expand its shooting range, but it has sparked a drive-and-kick offense that is consistently among the most efficient in the NBA.
Williamson’s long-term trajectory is determined in part by Van Gundy’s ability to get his star forward when he has the ball and to expand his points game beyond post-touchings and pick-and-roll finishing.
“We’re trying to create more situations for him [like] have the ball on the edge and can attack, ”said Van Gundy. “It doesn’t matter whether he handles pick-and-rolls or has the opportunity to drive the ball and shoot the ball. It will take some time. Not just for him, but for our team. We need to develop some of these things. This guy is one of the most unique talents I’ve seen in the league. Trying to make a package for him is challenging and fun at the same time. “