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No magic formula to developing a potential 'unicorn' like Zion Williamson

The path Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo pursued in his rise could serve as a guide to New Orleans and its young phenom.

Zion Williamson is putting up solid stats in 2020-21, but the Pelicans are off to a 6-10 start.

No unicorn before its time.

That’s a variation of an old wine commercial, in which legendary actor Orson Welles explained the values of aging and patience before uncorking (or maybe unscrewing) a bottle of Paul Masson’s finest.

The same sales pitch might be applied to some of the NBA’s most rare, intriguing players. Such as Zion Williamson, the New Orleans Pelicans’ forward who has been amassing some impressive statistics, strong reviews and pointed criticism, too.

So maybe it’s worth recalling a fellow mythical creature who hit the NBA a half dozen years before Williamson and needed some time to develop, too. Frankly, as fine as Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo already is, his game still is clarifying and maturing back then as well.

Williamson arrived as literally the league’s Next Big Thing.

The No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft had a resume crammed with jaw-dropping plays, given his 6-foot-7, 284-pound frame. He drew comparisons to LeBron James, only beefier, with a humble, engaging personality and the potential to thrive in this era of positionless basketball.

His rookie season offered a glimpse, but was limited after knee surgery to just 24 appearances. He didn’t make his debut until Jan. 22, New Orleans’ 45th game and he played just five times in the Orlando bubble as the Pelicans went 2-6 to miss the playoff berth.

His numbers were solid — 22.5 ppg in 27.8 minutes per game, with 6.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 58.3% shooting and a 6-for-14 showing on 3-pointers. That earned him a spot on the All-Rookie team, though Williamson’s limited participation made Memphis’ Ja Morant a runaway Kia Rookie of the Year winner.

Zion Williamson came up big for the Pelicans in a win Wednesday.

This season, the air around the Pelicans is different, the assessments of both the team and Williamson a bit tougher. They’re two years removed from Anthony Davis’ undermining trade demands, a season-plus beyond Williamson’s and VP of basketball operations David Griffin’s arrivals. That’s about as much honeymoon as sports people get in these cranky, pandemic times — actually, in the old, normal times, too — and the team’s 6-10 start under new coach Stan Van Gundy sure hasn’t extended it.

After Williamson and teammate Brandon Ingram each scored 32 points in a victory against Washington Wednesday, the big fellow’s achievement was duly noted on social media. It was followed almost immediately by comments wondering why, in nearly 33 minutes, he grabbed only two of New Orleans’ 50 rebounds that night.

And then this from one critic, who linked Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and Williamson in another, less flattering way: “Which means NO NBA Championship until you request to be traded to a contender.”

While the Pelicans are 14th in the Western Conference, it’s more than the W-L mark that has some folks concerned. They rank in the bottom half of the NBA in offensive and defensive rating and the bottom 10 in points per game, opponents points per game and pace.

They are 26th in 3-point field goal attempts (30.8), 27th in 3-point percentage (33.7), 30th in the number of 3-pointers their opponents take (41.6) and 22nd in the percentage (37.8) given up. That has Van Gundy’s crew being outscored by more than 16 points per game from the 3-point line.

Williamson is toting his own raggedy numbers. He leads the NBA in 2-point field goals made (140), but his sample size of 3-pointers is shrinking in every way — he’s 1-for-6 on them (16.7%) this season.

He’s underwater in his ratings at 108.6 offensively and 113.9 defensively. After being a plus-2.6 in his limited action in 2019-20, Williamson is a minus-2.9 so far this season. And the Pelicans have been 3.1 points better when he’s been off the floor.

Defensively, he has given up size when used at center. But even when used next to Steven Adams, Van Gundy’s most frequent alignment, Williamson frequently has gotten burned by ball-watching and losing his man. With nits getting picked, some have returned to wondering about Williamson’s body mass and how suited it ever will be to wing play or heavy mileage. It’s a fine line between unicorn and ‘tweener.

Earlier this month, Van Gundy met with Williamson and Ingram to remind them how some of the league’s top tandems — James and Davis with the Lakers, as well as Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton with the Bucks — thrive.

Zion Williamson is one of the NBA’s most active players around the rim.

“They’re all guys that play both ends of the floor,” Van Gundy said. “They’re two-way guys. My challenge is to create a better offensive framework and spacing for [Williamson and Ingram]. Their 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.”

Antetokounmpo is a fine rabbit for Williamson to chase in more ways than that. When you’ve still got a “shock the world” tweet from four and a half years ago pinned under your profile, following a role model who racked up two Kia Most Valuable Player awards, four All-NBA selections and trophies as both Kia Defensive Player of the Year and Kia Most Improved in his first seven seasons seems to fit.

It’s worth remembering, though, that Antetokounmpo didn’t arrive as a fully formed All-Star. That horn in the middle of his forehead was a mere bump when the Bucks picked him 15th overall in 2013.

Antetokounmpo’s rookie production —  6.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.9 apg — was meager, but his tremendous wingspan and lateral quickness meshed swiftly with a nose for defense as coached by Larry Drew and Jason Kidd. Yet in season No. 2, his production was small compared to Williamson’s: 12.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.6 apg and 49.1% shooting.

What has distinguished Antetokounmpo has been steady year-over-year improvement. His scoring and rebounding averages stepped up in each of his first seven seasons, as did his efficiency until his per-36 stats were 34.9 ppg, 16.1 rpg and 6.6 apg in 2019-20.

Finding Giannis: Relive Draft day 2013 for the Bucks’ future star

Differing aspirations in Antetokounmpo’s early years (the Bucks made the playoffs once in his first three seasons) and the added intensity for Williamson of being drafted No. 1 rather explain some difference in the criticism levels. But for the league’s best and most promising, that remains a constant.

Coach Mike Budenholzer, general manager Jon Horst and a committed ownership have built the Bucks around Antetokounmpo. That’s a process only beginning in New Orleans, where perimeter shooting is a dire need. The trade deadline might help, but otherwise Williamson and the Pelicans will work with what they have.

“We’re trying to create more situations for him,” Van Gundy said. “Having the ball on the perimeter and being able to attack. Whether he’s handling on pick-and-rolls or getting opportunities to drive the ball … that’s going to take some time. Not only for him, but for our team.

“This guy is one of the most unique talents that I’ve seen in the league. Trying to create a package for him is challenging yet fun at the same time.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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