Zion Williamson, somehow, has exceeded expectations to start his NBA career. He has wasted no time becoming a high-usage player for the New Orleans Pelicans, and given his output — 24.1 points per game on 63 percent true shooting — it’s not hard to envision him growing into a top-15 or top-10 NBA player in the near future.
It usually takes players years to reach that point. We’re seeing that leap from Jayson Tatum right now, in his third season. Tatum, of course, was a very good starting NBA player, and he’s now blossoming into a truly elite fulcrum. Zion has played 15 games and he’s already proven he’s a legitimate superstar. The hype was real and worthy.
The most striking thing about watching Zion is the pure dominance he radiates. It’s like watching Shaq; he asserts his physical will and gives off the sense that this is just another basketball game for him, a routine thing. He’s barging into the paint and finishing silky layups the same way he did at Duke, and the same way he would if he joined pickup at a local rec center, never mind that this is the National Basketball Association. It looks like it’s the same level of difficulty for him regardless of where he’s competing.
Watch him run up and down the court and you worry that he’s fragile. His jog can be sort of awkward, as though he’s laboring. He’s so athletic that it feels too good to be true. Those concerns, of course, are tossed aside when he bursts through tiny gaps in the paint and trampolines above some lumbering center.
His post moves are refined. He looks like he has internalized his physical gifts and worked on maximizing them in ways that no other player could. We know that post-ups are some of the least efficient plays in basketball, but Zion doesn’t post up so much as start his drives with his back to the basket:
Other stars (Giannis, maybe some Ben Simmons or LeBron) can execute similar plays, but not with Zion’s frequency or efficiency.
He has the off-the-dribble bounce to explode past defenders. When there is a path to the hoop, he knows how to get low, take contact, and find a way to put the ball in the net. His instincts at the basket are impressive: he knows when he has to adjust his layup for contact and when he can afford to calmly slide the ball through. Some players panic or flail; Zion never does.
Take these two clips, in which Milwaukee’s Lopez brothers are the two victims:
In the first, Zion realizes he is facing a contested paint, with Kyle Korver and Khris Middleton both helping Robin Lopez. Zion responds by crouching in between Lopez and Korver and hanging in the air against Lopez’s outstretched hands, waiting for the opportunity to put the ball in his left hand and drop it in the cup.
The second clip features Zion blowing past Brook Lopez (an elite rim protector!) and finishing a clean reverse layup. Notice the difference: Zion realizes he doesn’t have to initiate contact, so he simply doesn’t. He takes his layup and doesn’t complicate things for himself.
When he gets the ball on the block, he forces his defender into a losing battle by engaging physically. There aren’t many players in the NBA who can stand in front of him and take contact without fouling or outright getting beat:
The nuance is there, and Zion is only adding to it. He doesn’t go left every time; he knows how to leverage his known tendency to go to his strong side by introducing sleight ball feints and jab steps. His spins toward the basket are powerful, and his floater-style shots are useful for when there isn’t an easy dunk or layup to be had. When he misses, he snatches his own rebound at a ridiculous rate.
He gets to the free-throw line at a pace similar to the league’s biggest stars. With 8.5 attempts per game, he would rank seventh in the league if he qualified for rate stats. The rest of the top-10 is filled entirely with superstars.
If there’s anything to improve, it’s his hands in the lane. He can be stripped too easily, and in transition, his dribble can spiral a bit. He averages more turnovers than assists per game. There have been flashes of playmaking, and as he grows familiar with NBA-level reads, he will improve as a passer.
The Pelicans are plus-11.1 per 100 possessions with Zion on the floor this season, good for a net rating of plus-14.4. Impressively, New Orleans gives up just 102.3 points per 100 possessions with Zion on the floor and 112.9 with him off. He certainly has defensive kinks to iron out, but it’s fair to say that he’s been a positive on that end.
It’s still basically impossible for him to win Rookie of the Year. There are 22 games left on the Pelicans’ schedule, which means that even if he plays every game, he still will not have played even half the season. Ja Morant has been too good to be robbed of the award by a player who played significantly fewer games. Morant has been the best player on a team that has come out of nowhere to be in playoff contention.
New Orleans might still storm back and overtake the Grizzlies for the eighth-seed. Zion will have been the primary reason. It’s clear already that he’s worthy of elite status in this league.