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With restrictions lifted, Zion Williamson starting to make impact

Now that Williamson is healthy, the Pelicans aren't standing in the way of the rising star.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

After 3 games, Zion Williamson is averaging around 35 minutes per game.

He stands about 5-foot-9, talks an eloquent game of basketball but never actually laced up the sneakers, turned 47 last month … and nobody has ever played better defense against Zion Williamson than him.

The good news for the Pelicans is David Griffin is no longer shutting down the NBA’s most unique, and perhaps exciting, young player. For a while last season, and definitely in the Orlando bubble, Griffin was a more effective lock-down defender than Giannis Antetokounmpo. The understandably cautious general manager, acting on the advice of the team’s medical and performance staff, took the careful and protective approach with Williamson, with an eye toward a long and healthy future, and kept the player on a minutes leash.

But now, with those concerns tempered greatly if not permanently, the league gets to behold the forceful talent that is Williamson, who feels free to be … well, Zion.

“I love to play basketball,” he said. “With no restrictions? Why wouldn’t I love that?”

Truth is, Williamson despised being on the bench for long stretches in his rookie season, which started late because of injury, was interrupted because of the coronavirus delay, then was effectively placed on ice in the summer when the season resumed. You could understand how he felt, and how Griffin felt. But, much like the players currently assigned to guard him, that’s all been left behind.

Williamson has looked energetic, forceful, restless and most reassuring of all, healthy since the start of this season. It’s the best possible scenario for the player and the team, with both sides on the same page and fully satisfied with this next phase of the plan.

“I want to show that I’m a basketball player,” he said. “I’ll do whatever the team needs me to do on offense or defense no matter what it is to win. I’m just a competitor.”

And just as previously advertised, he’s a force with the ball, causing teams to shuffle their lineups in order to find the right matchup against him. That’s proving to be tricky, because as a unicorn, Williamson is too quick for bigger players and too powerful against smaller players.

After three games he’s getting 35 minutes a night, up from 27 minutes last season when he only played 24 games. (For the sake of perspective, only five players in the NBA averaged more than 35 minutes a night last season.) Coach Stan Van Gundy isn’t checking a stopwatch and pulling Williamson from games. Nor is the team counting the number of “bursts” shown by Williamson and putting a cap on that.

He is released to do what he does best, which is taking defenders off the dribble, finishing hard at the rim, and helping on the boards — all rather remarkable for a small forward who stands 6-foot-6. Of course, that height comes with a refrigerator of a body; even though Williamson seems lighter than last year when he was listed at 285 pounds, he hasn’t skimped on pushups.

Best of all: He’s averaging 21.7 points and 11.7 rebounds and off to a solid start.

Zion Williamson posts 18 points and 11 rebounds against the Spurs.

On Tuesday, the Pelicans play the Suns and it’s Phoenix’s turn to figure how to check Williamson. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson both give away too much weight. Jae Crowder is a better fit, body-type wise, but what about strength? That’s the dilemma facing teams. Anyway, the league today is all about matchups, mainly because of the increased emphasis on isolation and one-on-one play.

The other factor is Williamson isn’t your typical, stand-at-the-perimeter player — again, a staple of today’s NBA. He’s mobile without the ball and looks to do his damage in the soft spot of the defense, usually the mid-range area which is mainly left open.

And at the rim, Williamson challenges taller players by going strong to his natural left hand, and hanging in mid-air long enough to release the shot at the last second. He’s taking almost nine free throws a game, and the only problem is he’s shooting just 57% at the line.

“He’s an unbelievable playmaker for a guy at his size,” said Van Gundy. “He’s a guy who can take the ball off the glass and lead the break and make plays. He can make passes off the dribble. He can finish over bigger people inside. He’s a multi-talented guy.”

Much like teammate Brandon Ingram, Williamson doesn’t fit in a specific forward position. Nor does Van Gundy concern himself with that. It’s the other team’s worry, not the Pelicans’. Van Gundy is taking the gradual approach in his first year coaching Williamson, and using each game to gauge the player and the system and what works best for all. The potential for mismatches has allowed both Ingram and Williamson to flourish and create solid chemistry, and because of that, they’re easily the Pelicans’ main source of offense.

Van Gundy said: “My guess is as time goes on, I’m going to find out that he can do even more than I think he can do, and things will evolve from there.”

This is the arrangement Williamson and the Pelicans hoped for. It’s putting distance between this and the old one, where Williamson was pulled from games regardless of the score. Griffin was too worried about his body type and injury history — Williamson missed the first 44 games his rookie season after knee surgery — to take any chances. It was an odd existence, but the Pelicans were going nowhere special last season, so why not preserve Williamson, allow him to get in better shape, and start anew in 2020-21?

“I think I was only able to finish a game maybe three, maybe four times last year,” he said. “It was tough, man. When you’re going through rehab and when you’re finally able to step on the court, three minutes goes by, four minutes by and … you gotta get subbed out. It was a lot.”

There are no concrete plans to revisit minutes restrictions or play the load management card with Williamson. That doesn’t mean the Pelicans have totally let down their guard. Everything will be monitored for him, as well as other players on the team. As long as Williamson’s body responds favorably, he’ll never see the intimidating shadow of David Griffin crouching in front of him, ready to apply the stops.

“I just want him on the court,” Van Gundy said.

And if Williamson stays good for 30-plus minutes a night, the Pelicans believe they’ll like what’s coming their way.

Steven Adams, the Pelicans’ center, said: “His potential is definitely up there. He’s an amazing athlete, an amazing player. And he’s built like a brick … you know the rest.”

Williamson said when he’s healthy, “I’m just a different kind of player” who wants to fulfill all the enormous hype that followed him from Duke and made Pelicans employees jump off their chairs and pound tables when the team secured the rights to the No. 1 pick in 2019. That’s a lot of ground to cover, yet based on the early returns, Williamson seems ready to travel that road.

And most reassuring of all, the Pelicans are no longer standing before him and blocking the way.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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