Stuck in the middle of a six-team race for eighth and ninth place, the New Orleans Pelicans have work to do in order to qualify for the Western Conference play-in scenario.
Their schedule remains favorable. But, given how poorly they defended against Sacramento on Thursday, no assumptions can be made about their ability to win going forward. In a situation that called for urgency and effort, the Pelicans allowed 140 points on 102 possessions, their worst defensive performance in a season littered with them.
The 140-125 defeat was New Orleans’ most efficient offensive game in the restart, and it came with 24 points in less than 22 minutes from Zion Williamson (who took all 12 of his shots in the restricted area).
Through 23 career games, Williamson has taken 285 (84%) of his 340 shots in the restricted area. That’s the third-highest rate among 238 players with at least 300 total field goal attempts, lower than only those of Mitchell Robinson (96%) and Rudy Gobert (90%). The rookie made four 3-pointers in his debut, but has made just two since then and is 3-for-11 from mid-range.
Williamson is not yet comfortable shooting from the outside, but he can be a force inside, especially against a defense on the move.
Zion the roll man
The Pelicans didn’t use Williamson as a ball-screener much against Memphis on Monday. They did so early and often on Thursday and results were good, in part because the Kings initially preferred not to get in front of him. Once they did, other shots presented themselves.
Play 1. On the first play of the game, Williamson sets a back-to-the-baseline screen for Jrue Holiday along the left sideline. Holiday hits Williamson with a pocket pass and Williamson finishes between the recovering Richaun Holmes and the weak-side helper, Nemanja Bjelica.
Number to know: Williamson has averaged 21.5 points in the paint per 36 minutes, the highest rate for any player (minimum 500 minutes played) in the 24 seasons for which points in the paint have been tracked.
Play 2. On the Pelicans’ next possession, Williamson sets a screen in the same spot, but for Brandon Ingram to get toward the middle of the floor. With the other three Pelicans stationed on the weak side, the Kings don’t have anybody in position to tag Williamson’s roll to the rim.
Number to know: Williamson leads the league with 15.7 points in the restricted area per game.
Play 3. Williamson sets another “pistol” screen along the right sideline for Lonzo Ball, who hits him with another pocket pass. This time, the Kings’ defense collapses to keep Williamson from getting to the basket. He reads the defense and kicks out to Holiday in the weak-side corner. Holiday lets Bjelica fly by and drains the side-step 3.
Play 4. On a sideline out-of-bounds play, the Pelicans run an Ingram/Williamson pick-and-roll. Williamson catches another pocket pass above the foul line, but is able to get by the recovering Harry Giles and draw a foul.
Play 5. When the Kings deny Ingram the ball, Williamson flashes to the top of the key and runs a hand-off with Ball. Weak-side defender De’Aaron Fox just swipes at the ball, rather than get in front of Williamson’s roll to the rim.
Play 6. On another Ingram/Williamson pick-and-roll on the right side of the floor, Bogdan Bogdanovic steps in front of Williamson’s roll and Holmes retreats to prevent the pocket pass. But that allows Ingram to step into a mid-range jumper. He got a similar look from the left wing against a retreating Alex Len later in the third quarter.
Number to know: Ingram has averaged 36.4 points + rebounds + assists per 36 minutes, up from 28.0 last season. That’s the third-biggest jump (smaller than only those of second-year players Luka Doncic and Devonte’ Graham) among 267 players who have played at least 500 minutes in each of the last two seasons.
Play 7. On another right-side-of the-floor pick-and-roll with Holiday, Cory Joseph leaves Ball to help on the roll. Holiday finds Ball in the left corner, but he misses the open 3.
Number to know: Redick (from 39.7% to 45.2%) and Ball (from 32.9% to 37.7%) have seen the seventh and 12th biggest jumps in 3-point percentage, respectively, among 103 players with at least 200 3-point attempts in each of the last two seasons.
When Williamson goes one-on-one …
This season, 76.5% of Williamson’s buckets have been assisted. That’s the 36th highest rate among 172 players with at least 200 total field goals. But the Pelicans will often let the rookie go to work, either in isolation or in the post. On Thursday, it was a mix of both…
Play 1. Williamson sets a cross-screen for Frank Jackson, but with Bogdanovic “top-locking” Jackson, he cuts through the paint, drawing some help from Len and leaving Williamson alone on the right side of the floor. Holiday pitches him the ball and he quickly attacks before Len can get back in front.
Number to know: Since Williamson made his debut on Jan. 22, the Pelicans have been 8.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (plus-6.7) than they’ve been with him off the floor (minus-2.2).
Play 2. Williamson posts up against Holmes, who meets him on his initial spin move toward the baseline. Williamson then spins back to his left hand (his preferred move no matter which side of the floor he’s posting up on) and squeezes between Holmes and the double-team from Bjelica.
Number to know: The Pelicans’ starting lineup – Ball, Holiday, Ingram, Williamson and Derrick Favors – has outscored its opponents by 18.9 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark among 38 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes together.
Play 3. Ingram clears out so Williamson can isolate against Bjelica on the left side of the floor. The rookie beats him going left, draws a foul, and finishes.
Number to know: Williamson has accounted for 45.7% of the fouls the Pelicans have drawn while he’s been on the floor. That’s the sixth-highest rate among 333 players who have played at least 500 minutes.
Play 4. After some switching, Williamson posts up Bjelica. Favors tries to clear out, but his defender — De’Aaron Fox — stays around to double-team Williamson. He knocks the way on a spin toward the baseline, but Williamson recovers the ball and lays it in.
Number to know: Williamson’s 7.0 post-ups per game rank seventh in the league, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
Play 5. Holiday passes ahead to Williamson, who has a mismatch (Joseph) in transition. He doesn’t attack it right away and when he gets the ball back, Holmes comes with a double-team and contests a jump hook.
Number to know: The 0.94 points per possession that Williamson has scored on post-up possessions rank ninth among 23 players that have averaged at least 2.5 post-up possessions per game, according to Synergy play-type tracking.
Rookie draws some attention
That last play was one of only two shots that Williamson missed on Thursday. He had a tougher time in the paint against the Grizzlies three days earlier, struggling to finish in a crowd here, here and here.
As big and strong as he is (and despite the 10-for-12 performance on Thursday), Williamson has shot just 63.2% in the restricted area. That mark is a tick below the league average (63.4%) and ranks 58th among 96 players with at least 200 restricted-area attempts.
When a player takes almost all his shots at the rim, defenses will just wait for him there. The Grizzlies were a little more willing to get in front of Williamson when he went to the basket than the Kings were, and they blocked Williamson three times. For the season, Williamson has been blocked 2.1 times per 36 minutes, most among 333 players who have played at least 500 minutes. A 6-foot-6 guy who takes almost all of his shots at the rim is going to get blocked more than a seven-footer or someone who shoots from the outside.
Of course, when those defenses bring extra bodies to meet Williamson at the rim, things can open up for his teammates. The Pelicans rank first in player movement (12.2 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession, second in ball movement (383 passes per 24 minutes of possession) and sixth in assist percentage (having recorded assists on 63.3% of their buckets). Williamson, though he hasn’t been asked to make plays for others, has shown signs of being both a willing and intuitive passer.
Play 1. When Ball picks up his dribble after a hand-off from Favors, Holmes jumps out to deny a pass to Williamson. The rookie goes back door and Ball hits him with a pass. Bjelica slides over to help and Williamson drops the ball off for a Favors dunk.
Number to know: The Pelicans have outscored their opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions in 355 minutes with Williamson and Favors on the floor together. That’s the team’s best on-court mark among its 49 two-man combinations that have played at least 250 minutes.
Play 2. Against the Grizzlies, Melli slips out of a screen for Ball and goes to set one for Williamson in the right corner. (He doesn’t have to, because Jonas Valanciunas isn’t anywhere near Williamson). When Williamson attacks off the catch, Kyle Anderson (guarding Melli) steps in front. Williamson pivots and hits Melli for an open 3.
Number to know: The Pelicans rank fifth in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage (38.8%).
Play 3. Williamson doesn’t touch the ball here, but when he runs ahead of JJ Redick on the break, he gets Anthony Tolliver to sink toward the paint. That leaves Redick open beyond the arc and Tolliver fouls him on his recovery.
Number to know: The Pelicans lead the league with 19.5 “pass-ahead” passes per game, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Ball (8.6) and Holiday (6.7) rank first and third among individuals.
Redick: The ideal Zion complement
Williamson has had immediate chemistry with Ball, which often manifests in thunderous dunks off long lob passes …
ZION OOOOP 😳 pic.twitter.com/Vr1BOck8eN
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) August 3, 2020
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) August 6, 2020
But the ideal on-court complement for Williamson may be Redick, who had terrific two-man chemistry with a similarly burly Joel Embiid in Philadelphia. Pairing a player who must be kept from the basket with one who teams must run off the 3-point line can give opposing defenses very difficult decisions to make.
With Redick coming off the bench and Williamson often seeing his playing time limited to the first five minutes of each quarter, the two have played just 140 minutes together this season. Williamson has played more minutes with six other teammates.
But we have seen the early stages of a Redick-Williamson two-man game…
Play 1. Ball enters the ball to Williamson above the right elbow. The play is for Ball to set a screen for Redick, who then heads into a hand-off from Williamson. But with Dillon Brooks top-locking Redick, he goes back door and Williamson hits him with a bounce pass for a layup.
Play 2. The Pelicans run the same play on the next possession. This time, Redick uses the Ball screen, takes the hand-off from Williamson, and drains a 3-pointer off one dribble. Brooks gets hit by both picks and can’t recover in time.
Number to know: Redick has shot 41.2% on pull-up 3-pointers, the second best mark among 62 players who have attempted at least 100.
Play 3. The Pelicans run the same play on the next possession. This time (with Grayson Allen initially guarding Redick), the Grizzlies switch the Ball screen and Brooks can deny the hand-off. So Williamson uses Redick (and Brooks) as his own ball screen and attacks the paint. He collapses the defense and passes to Melli for a wide-open 3. But Melli passes up the shot and Redick misses a contested pull-up.
Number to know: In four games since the restart, Redick has been on the floor for 30 of Williamson’s 76 minutes. The Pelicans have been outscored by 26 points in those 30 minutes.
Play 4. Against the Kings, the Pelicans run a quick-hitting baseline out-of-bounds play, with Redick curling to the corner off a screen from Williamson. Holmes jumps out to contest the jumper, Redick hits Williamson rolling to the rim, and the Kings foul the rookie.
Number to know: Williamson has a free throw rate of 50.6 attempts per 100 shots from the field. That’s the sixth highest rate among 238 players with at least 300 field goal attempts.
Play 5. Redick flashes to the ball along the left sideline and hands off to Williamson, with Fox staying attached to the shooter. Holmes slides under the hand-off, but Williamson gets him leaning with an in-and-out dribble and finishes at the rim.
Number to know: The Pels have have had possession for just 41.1% of games, the league’s second lowest rate (higher than only that of the Rockets – 41.0%), according to Second Spectrum tracking.
Play 6. When Joseph denies a Redick curl off a Williamson screen, Redick circles back to the left corner. Williamson gets the ball and Joseph continues to top-lock Redick, preventing the hand-off. Redick tries to use both himself and Joseph as a screen for Williamson, but Holmes can slide under the guards and prevent the drive. Williamson gets the ball back to Redick for a late-clock pick-and-roll along the sideline, but Holmes traps it and Buddy Hield drops off Ball to intercept the pass to Williamson on the roll.
Number to know: The Pelicans rank 29th in turnover percentage (15.5 per 100 possessions).
Just scratching the surface
Williamson must improve his shooting at some point. These were the Pelicans’ first two possessions of the third quarter against Memphis on Monday …
- With Jackson pressuring Williamson on the perimeter, the rookie drove by and sliced through Jackson and the help from Valanciunas for a layup.
- With Valanciunas sagging off Williamson, the rookie shot a 3-pointer off the back of the rim.
But Williamson is already an offensive force without a jumper. He’s shown a knack for attacking the seams of a rotating defense, bullying smaller guys in the post, beating everyone to a loose ball or offensive rebound, and pulling defenders into the paint to open things up for his teammates.
In the preseason (small sample size alert), the Pelicans were dominant with Williamson at center, and it would seem ideal to surround him with four guys who can shoot. But in the regular season thus far, the Pelicans have been more efficient offensively (and much, much, much better defensively) in 355 minutes with Williamson and Favors on the floor together (113.1 points scored per 100 possessions) than they’ve been in 267 minutes with Williamson on the floor without either Favors or Jaxson Hayes (111.2 per 100). Hayes isn’t quite ready to play a big role on a good team and Favors is a free agent this fall, so it will be interesting to see how much the Pelicans want to keep the 10-year veteran (who’s still just 29 years old) around.
Williamson will be around for a long time. Over the next 10 seasons, he could evolve quite a bit. But it’s already been interesting to see how the Pelicans use his special combination of size and skills.
It would be even more interesting to see how a playoff defense tries to neutralize him. But if we’re going to get that opportunity, the Pelicans’ own defense will have to be much better over the next seven days.
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