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Friday's notebook: Zion Williamson shows off skills at center position

3 takeaways heading into the weekend

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

Happy Friday! We’re 54% through the 2019-20 season. We’ve been rewarded for our patience with the debut of the No. 1 pick, and not to mention the trade deadline is less than two weeks away. Here are some things of note as we head into the Week 14 weekend…

1. About Zion Williamson’s debut

Zion Williamson played his first regular season debut on Thursday, registering 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists and five turnovers in a little over 18 minutes in the Pelicans’ 121-117 loss to the Spurs.

Here are a few notes and numbers…

Forward vs. center

Williamson started alongside Derrick Favors and, through the first three quarters, he had played 9:50 at power forward and just 1:51 at center. Then he played 6:37 at center in the fourth quarter, when he scored 17 of his 22 points.

In total, the Pelicans outscored the Spurs, 29-21 in 8:28 with Williamson at the five. (They were outscored, 26-21, with Williamson at the four.) Including his preseason minutes, New Orleans is a plus-52 in 54:03 with Williamson at center.

Interestingly, all those preseason minutes were played with Brandon Ingram, Nicolo Melli or Kenrich Williams playing the four alongside Williamson. But all of his minutes at the five on Wednesday were played alongside four guards.

That may be just a result of a few different circumstances. Williams is injured and Melli played just over a minute, late in the first quarter. And all of Williamson’s minutes at the five were at the start of the second and fourth quarters, when Ingram was on the bench.

In time, we’ll certainly see some minutes with Williamson at the five and Ingram at the four, what may be the Pelicans’ most potent configuration.

Pushing the pace

The Pelicans rank fifth in both pace (103.3 possessions per 48 minutes) and fast break points per game (16.4). And they don’t just run off live rebounds and turnovers.

On Wednesday, one of Williamson’s buckets was a direct result of Lonzo Ball pushing the ball after a Spurs score. With Ball crossing midcourt with 21 seconds on the shot clock and DeMar DeRozan trailing the play, the Spurs got cross-matched. Jakob Poeltl picked up Ball and DeRozan was forced to match up with Williamson trailing the play.

Williamson took DeRozan into the paint and Ball lofted a lob pass over the helpless defender.

“It’s great playing with a guy like that,” Williamson told reporters on Friday, referencing Ball. “I can make cuts off the ball sometimes to break the play. I know he’s going to see me and try to find me… I think it definitely opens up the game for me a lot with a player like him.”

Ball isn’t just good a pushing the pace via the dribble. According to Second Spectrum tracking, he ranks sixth in the league with 2.2 pass-ahead passes per game. The Pelicans rank third among teams at 6.2 per game, and the more their guards put defenses on their heels, the more opportunities Williamson will have to do damage on the move.

Everything is a mismatch

Of course, two possessions after that lob over DeRozan, Williamson was too quick for Poeltl after the Spurs’ back-up center blocked Williamson’s initial shot.

Williamson’s 4-for-4 from 3-point range in his debut was obviously a little fluky. His shooting form isn’t great and his shot is flat. But the No. 1 pick doesn’t have to be an above-average 3-point shooter to be a problem for opposing defenses, especially when he’s playing the five and surrounded by four other guys that can shoot.

The Pelicans’ complete a three-game homestand with a couple of tough opponents this weekend. They host the Nuggets on Friday (8 ET, League Pass) and the Celtics on Sunday (6 ET, ESPN).

2. Anthony Davis inside and out

Former Pelican Anthony Davis has played about 65% of his minutes at power forward this season, down from *54% over his last two seasons in New Orleans. The Lakers’ win in Brooklyn on Thursday was the first game that either JaVale McGee (who was out with an illness) or Dwight Howard has missed this season, and the two centers have combined to average a little more than 37 minutes per game.

* The 54% is if you call the 6-8 Julius Randle the center in last season’s Davis-Randle frontline. If not, Davis only played 4% of his minutes at power forward last season. He played 49% at the four the season before (alongside DeMarcus Cousins and Emeka Okafor).

With the increase in minutes at the four, Davis has seen an increase in the percentage of his shots that have come from outside the paint. He’s a little more of a jump-shooter now than he was the last two seasons.

Anthony Davis, shooting in the paint
Seasons FGM FGA FG% %FGA
First 2 seasons 661 1,089 60.7% 65%
Seasons 3-5 1,228 2,051 59.9% 53%
Seasons 6-7 977 1,543 63.3% 62%
2019-20 247 389 63.5% 58%
%FGA = % of total FGA that have come in the paint

Through Jan. 23, 2020

He hasn’t been a very effective jump-shooter, though. Davis has an effective field goal percentage of 39.4% on shots from outside the paint, a mark that ranks 117th among 122 players who have taken at least 200 shots from the outside (not including backcourt shots).

Davis still ranks fifth in the league with 13.2 points in the paint per game. His 75.1% shooting in the restricted area is the best mark among 36 players with at least 200 restricted-area attempts.

But among 163 players with at least 100 shots both inside and outside, only Jabari Parker has a bigger differential between his field goal percentage in the paint and his effective field goal percentage from outside the paint.

Biggest difference, FG% in the paint vs. eFG% outside paint
In the paint Outside paint
Player FGA FG% %FGA FGA eFG% Diff.
Jabari Parker 246 64.2% 63% 147 37.8% 26.5%
Anthony Davis 394 63.5% 58% 291 39.2% 24.3%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 557 66.8% 67% 280 45.2% 21.6%
Malik Monk 165 58.8% 51% 161 38.2% 20.6%
Jimmy Butler 291 55.3% 58% 213 34.7% 20.6%
Rui Hachimura 179 58.1% 59% 124 37.9% 20.2%
Kevin Porter Jr. 117 59.8% 46% 136 40.1% 19.8%
Aaron Gordon 234 56.4% 50% 235 37.9% 18.5%
Kris Dunn 193 54.4% 61% 125 36.0% 18.4%
T.J. McConnell 154 60.4% 61% 100 42.0% 18.4%
%FGA = % of total FGA

eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

Minimum 100 FGA in the paint & 100 FGA outside the paint

Through Jan. 23, 2020

We think of Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Ben Simmons as the trio of stars against whom you have to “wall up,” forcing them to beat you over the top. Davis is a different kind of player and keeping him from scoring inside is a lot easier said than done, but he’s in that category of guys who are much more effective inside than they are from the perimeter.

Davis could improve his effective field goal percentage on jumpers by turning some mid-range shots into 3-point attempts. He has seen an increase in his ratio of 3-point attempts to mid-range attempts in each of the last three seasons (from 0.2 in 2016-17 to 0.8 this season), but that ratio could (and should) be higher. Davis’ 34.2% from mid-range ranks 43rd among 47 players with at least 100 mid-range attempts.

“He’s been, throughout his career, at about one or two 3-pointers per game,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel told NBA.com this week. “We’re trying to get him to up that to four or five. While he’s doing that, he’s a developing shooter from the perimeter, from the standpoint finding more opportunities to get clean looks.”

Time will tell if Davis continues to play almost twice as much at the four as he does at the five, though the percentage of his shots that have come in the paint hasn’t been much higher when he’s played center (59%) than it has when he’s played next to McGee or Howard (57%).

The Lakers’ defense has been great in those minutes with him at the five, but the offense has been sub-par (104.8 points scored per 100 possessions), in part because Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, James and Troy Daniels have all shot worse from 3-point range in those minutes (30% combined) than they have otherwise. Green has shot 44% from beyond the arc with Davis at the four and just 25% with Davis at the five. That latter number comes with a small sample size (48 attempts) and will probably improve with time.

After sweeping their New York back-to-back, the Lakers complete their five-game trip in Philadelphia on Saturday (8:30 ET, ABC). They then head home for their third meeting with the Clippers on Tuesday (10 ET, TNT).

3. Non-clutch standings

After their win in Portland on Thursday, the Dallas Mavericks (at 28-16) are a half game ahead of the Houston Rockets (27-16) for fifth place in the Western Conference. But are they even better than that?

While the Mavericks have the league’s 10th best record, they have its third best point differential (+7.1 per game), that of a team that’s 32-12.

How does that work? Well, the Mavs’ average margin of victory in their 28 wins is 14.7 points. Their average margin of defeat in their 16 losses is 6.3. With their loss to the Clippers on Tuesday (in which they led by one with less than three minutes to go), the Mavs are 10-13 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. The Charlotte Hornets (12-13) and Cleveland Cavaliers (9-10) have been better than that in “clutch” games.

While the Mavs have scored 116.4 points per 100 possessions (No. 1 in the league) overall, they’ve scored just 93.2 (28th) with the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. After shooting 6-for-11 on shots to tie or take the lead in the last minute of the fourth or OT last season, Luka Doncic is 0-for-6 this season. (No other player has more than four attempts without a make in those situations.)

With better luck in close games, the Mavs might be in second place in the West instead of sixth. In fact, if you counted only games that weren’t within five points in the last five minutes, the Mavs would have the best record in the West.

Games that weren’t within 5 in the last 5, West
Team W L PCT
Dallas 18 3 0.857
L.A. Lakers 23 4 0.852
LA Clippers 17 6 0.739
Denver 13 5 0.722
Utah 13 6 0.684
Houston 16 8 0.667
San Antonio 9 8 0.529
Oklahoma City 7 7 0.500
New Orleans 8 11 0.421
Phoenix 8 11 0.421
Memphis 10 15 0.400
Minnesota 7 14 0.333
Portland 7 16 0.304
Sacramento 4 13 0.235
Golden State 4 20 0.167
Through Jan. 23, 2020

In the East, the Detroit Pistons would be in playoff position if we only counted games that were within five points in the last five minutes.

Games that weren’t within 5 in the last 5, East
Team W L PCT
Milwaukee 26 3 0.897
Boston 18 4 0.818
Toronto 17 4 0.810
Miami 17 7 0.708
Philadelphia 11 5 0.688
Indiana 16 8 0.667
Orlando 12 11 0.522
Detroit 10 17 0.370
Chicago 7 12 0.368
Brooklyn 5 12 0.294
Washington 6 17 0.261
New York 5 19 0.208
Atlanta 4 18 0.182
Charlotte 3 17 0.150
Cleveland 3 23 0.115
Through Jan. 23, 2020

Of course, close games count. Execution on high-leverage possession matters. Of the 668 games the league has played through Thursday, 344 (51%) have been within five points in the last five minutes.

No team has played more clutch games than the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have been within five in the last five in 31 (69%) of their 48 games. The experience and execution of Chris Paul (who has shot 54% on 69 clutch shots) has been huge, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is also 24-for-36 (67%) with the score within five in the last five.

The Thunder’s fortunes in close games has them in seventh place in the West. And one may wonder how much that affects their approach to trade talks with the deadline now less than two weeks away.

* * *

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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