25-under-25: Zion Williamson at No. 3

25-under-25, New Orleans Pelicans

Already a generational scoring talent, Zion Williamson may only be scratching the surface of his potential as a player.

Even in an era when young stars take less time than ever to ascend, Zion Williamson’s rise is exceptional. With fewer than 100 NBA games under his belt, the 21-year-old has already established himself as one of the most devastating offensive players in basketball, and should only further solidify himself this year as a game-warping force.

Williamson scored over 29 points per 75 possessions last year, with a true shooting percentage nearly eight points above the league average, but the most striking part of that production is in the way Williamson physically overwhelms his opponents. Arguably the most powerful athlete in NBA history, he combines world-class speed, agility, strength and tenacity into a single, uncontainable arsenal that allows him to get to the rim at will. It almost defies the laws of physics that a 285-pound human can do this:

Williamson covers massive amounts of ground on when he changes direction and is shockingly nimble for someone his size. Pair that with refined ball-handling skills, and Williamson is one of the most difficult players in the league to stay in front of:

And if he can’t get by his defender, he’ll simply power through them:

That level of explosiveness and brute strength is what allows Williamson, at just 6-foot-6, to play exclusively as a big man without ever being undersized, and makes him one of the most dominant rim scorers in league history. Williamson attempted over 80 percent of his shots at the rim last season, which boosted the New Orleans Pelicans’ team attempt rate within four feet from 37 percent with him off the floor to nearly 45 with him on — the largest such increase in the league among regular rotation players.

Despite his historical proclivity for getting to the rim, Williamson finished just five percent of his total possessions last year as a roll man and averaged a middling 1.15 points per possession on those plays. That an already dominant interior scorer could have that much low-hanging fruit in his game is a terrifying thought, and if he ever plays with a true floor-spacing center, Williamson could very easily become one of the most imposing lob finishers in the NBA.

Already, the well-established threat of his interior scoring gives him a different kind of gravity than elite shooters have, but he still creates space for teammates by attracting extra defenders without the ball. Cuts to the basket in both the halfcourt and transition leave open trailing shooters, and attempts to preemptively double Williamson in the post often create opportunities on the other side of the floor:

Zion Williamson will be even more dangerous as he adds versatility to his game

Williamson also took steps forward as a playmaker last year, functionally serving as New Orleans’ point guard for much of the second half of the season. Already, he can consistently punish double teams and make drive-and-kick reads, and the sheer pressure he applies as a downhill attacker widens his passing lanes.

Point Zion heavily increased his pick-and-roll usage and assist percentage last year while cutting down on his turnover rate — all steps in the right direction for someone who projects as a foundational offensive piece. The potent combination of creating shots at the rim, consistently setting up teammates and bending defenses out of position helped the Pelicans score over 1.16 points per possession with Williamson on the floor last season — a 5.5-point increase over when he sat. That’s not quite the massive bump offensive superstars like Steph Curry and Nikola Jokic give their teams, but it’s a meaningful improvement for a 20-year-old forward who may only be scratching the surface of what he might eventually become.

Right now, Williamson’s only real offensive weakness is his lack of a jump shot, which, for all his scoring production and interior gravity, limits his off-ball value — and thus his ability to fit around other high-usage players. It’s also hard to maximize Williamson next to another non-shooting big, but New Orleans has bled points on defense during Williamson’s tenure without a traditional center on the floor. His explosive cuts and relentless offensive rebounding make him more of a threat than non-shooters like Russell Westbrook, who is almost completely inactive without the ball, and defenders can’t sag too far off of Williamson for fear of giving him a runway to the rim.

But his inability to punish defenses with his shot could make him susceptible to the same kinds of schemes that gave Giannis Antetokounmpo trouble in his early playoff runs, and Williamson will have to improve as an on-ball playmaker to fully mitigate such a glaring limitation.

Defensively, the Pelicans’ star remains a work in progress, to put it charitably. For as quickly as he changes direction and gets off the ground offensively, Williamson often looks as though he’s moving through quicksand on defense. Through two NBA seasons, his reaction time as a help defender has been slow, his closeouts have been sloppy and his discipline has been poor.

New Orleans has tried simplifying its scheme by switching ball screens, but Williamson has largely been unable to keep up at the point of attack. Those issues could be a product of injury-related conditioning issues, and certainly, his footwork, balance and technique should improve with time. But his mistakes also suggest he doesn’t read the game as naturally on defense as he does on offense, and any upside as a small-ball defensive anchor doesn’t appear remotely likely.

Those flaws don’t entirely close the door on Williamson eventually becoming an effective defender, but they will make it slightly difficult for New Orleans to build a competent defense while still maximizing him and Brandon Ingram on offense. Some players, however, are worth the concessions required to cultivate an ideal situation, and most any team would gladly go out of its way to get the most out of someone so good, so young, with so much room to grow.

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