(image by Tomek Kordylewski)
By Nick Faggio
Before Zion’s highly anticipated rookie debut, the hype was immense and the critics were loud. The first three quarters of his first gave game critics some red meat to chew on. But when the fourth quarter of Zion’s inaugural game rolled around, he turned into a beast that never looked back for the rest of his season.
Zion went on to score 17 fourth quarter points in 3:29 of playing time. Since Zion’s late game heroics, he would go on to break multiple rookie records. According to Elias Sports, his 22 point night is the highest total in a player’s debut night while logging under 20 minutes.
The Duke prospect went on to record a streak of 13 consecutive 20 point games, the most ever by a 19-year-old. The previous rookie best was Carmelo Anthony with nine games. Not to mention, the 13 game streak was the first 13 games of Zion’s young career.
What is better than a 20-point game streak? A 25-point game streak. Zion went on to become the first player since Michael Jordan to have four consecutive games of 25+ points while shooting over 57% from the field.
So how does a rookie without a steady jumper immediately become one of the deadliest scoring threats in the league? Brute strength and quick footwork. Let’s dive into one of his greatest playing assets.
Facing Up To Maximize His Physical Gifts
Zion beats defenders with significant height advantages because of his ability to work the face-up game. Just watch how he abuses 7-footers while turning to face them, and using his raw mix of strength and quickness. These physical gifts do more than mitigate defenders being more than five inches taller than him, they make them look like preteens.
Once Williamson (Williamson? That didn’t sound right. We’re sticking with just Zion) is head on with the defender, he loves to use quick jab steps and strong rip-thrus to throw the defender off balance. He recognizes when the defender is flat-footed and attacks their leading leg to throw them off balance.
Zion incorporates his best attributes of quickness and strength to bully defenders of any size. Despite still being a teenager at the time of writing, he gets to the rim with ease, and showing such ability early in his career holds endless possibilities. This being said, there is still room for improvement in his face-up game.
Feel For Others & Passing Out Of Doubles While Facing Up
Talk about a lengthy subheading, amIrite? With every great rookie phenom comes learning curves, and Zion still has plenty to adjust to if he wants to continually bully NBA defenses.
Zion’s ability to get to the hole is so unique and special, he draws constant double teams on the block. Like many a score-first rookie, Zion can sometimes suffer from tunnelvisionitis (TVI for short.) On his way to the rack, Zion can fail to recognize help defenders which leads to poor shots or turnovers.
In the clips below, the primary and help defenders are highlighted. Zion attacks them with intimidating ferocity. In spite of this, however, you will see how he misses open perimeter shooters by deciding to shoot through highly contested double teams.
NBA defenses are going to leave open Pelicans one pass away until Zion begins to make those passes. They will opt to make life miserable for this this uber-efficient, wrecking-ball-with-hands. This means sending doubles or triples and daring Zion to find the open man. For a player who bullied his way through double teams at every level until the league, these errors are anticipated and easy to correct.
Offseason To-Do List
Once Zion begins to keep his eyes up and make passes out of the double, it will open up the Pelicans offense greatly. When NBA defenses recognize he received treatment for TVI, it will allow Zion to have one-on-one pant matchups and dominate like vintage Shaq. Zion may simply need NBA reps with his teammates to adjust to this coverage.
Additionally, he has to work on that jumper. Defenders often dare Zion to shoot the ball when he is faced up against them. He must make defenders pay by hitting that open jumper. It’ll force them to defend closer to his body, something Zion wants. In the clip below, you will see his wrist action. Zion flicks the ball towards the hoop like he is aiming it. His extension and follow through is poor.
To fix this, Zion should spend the offseason working on exaggerating his upper mechanics. Putting an emphasis on getting more arc on his shot will achieve this for him. If Zion can master this midrange shot…watch out.
BONUS: What Are The Experts Saying
“Zion’s super shortened rookie season was an absolute delight. He is a little rough around the edges – shooting off the dribble, defensive positioning, conditioning. But his size, athleticism, passing and basketball IQ are unmatched. New Orleans is the perfect place for him to develop his game. He will be ripping through the NBA like Kyrie sneakers for years to come.”
Pelicans do-it-all writer and podcaster, David M. Grubb, stopped by once more to give his take.
“Physically, there is no on like Zion Williamson, and that was apparent even with him at maybe 75 percent of what he was before his injury. His first jump is one thing, but his second is just as insane. He gets off the floor so quickly. His hands are like catcher’s mitts covered in velvet. And his feet are nimble. He’s been playing off of instincts, and still was able to dominate as a scorer. He could be the player to re-establish the importance of an elite post scorer. Zion also has a long way to go defensively. On ball, he’s pretty solid, but he doesn’t really understand his assignments in space. He struggles on the defensive glass and he hasn’t yet proven to be any type of rim protector. Lastly, he has to improve his ball-handling. He tends to dribble away from his body without protecting it. “
Finally, Lachlan Everett of Hoops Habit was kind enough to contribute as well.
“Zion shot 63% with shots less than 5 feet away from the basket. That is just under All-Star Joel Embiid’s 66.1% so it is safe to say that in Zion’s small sample size he’ll be an efficient inside scorer. The only real fight Zion had was against the Bucks this season, he still scored 20 points, however, was 5-19 from the field against Giannis and Brook Lopez’s Great Wall of Wisconsin. The mixture of length, strength with the historically great defensive system showed a flaw in the around the basket skills of the Adonis-like Williamson.”
“As the bowling ball of a human he is, the 3’s may not be as important as the free-throw shooting. Zion got to the line eight times per game making 5.2 per game on a clip of 64.5%. Zion can definitely improve the percentages but in 19 games and as a rookie 8 attempts a game is excellent, that is in the same statistical area as Blake Griffin’s in 2010-2011 season (8.5 FGA/G) and Dwayne Wade’s 2004-2005 season (9.9 FGA/G) respectively.”