Zion Williamson makes NBA history in first 50 career games
The Pelicans star is the first player in the shot-clock era to average 23 ppg or more on 60% shooting in their first 50 career games.
Dominating inside while hitting a sizzling 13-for-16 from the field, Williamson became the only player in league history (during the shot-clock era) to average 23 points or more on 60% or better field-goal percentage through their first 50 career games.
“He’s just tough. There’s only so much you can do,” New Orleans coach Stan Van Gundy said. “As I’ve said: we want to use him more and more as the primary ballhandler, and I have more confidence in that because as well as he finishes and scores the ball inside, he’s also a very willing passer.”
Williamson displayed as much in dropping 31 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists, while his counterpart Ja Morant led the Grizzlies with 28 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. The performance at the FedEx Forum marked the first time the No. 1 and No. 2 picks from the same draft (2019) produced 25 points, five rebounds and five assists against one another since Feb. 26, 1972, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Neal Walk accomplished the feat, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
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Williamson tacked on a little more shine to his big night by knocking down his last 11 shots, which marked the third time this season he’s hit more than 10 in a row game, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
The 20-year-old also extended his league-best tally of five games before the age of 21 with 30 points or more on 75% or better from the field.
“I definitely feel a lot more comfortable,” Williamson said. “But you know me. I know there’s always room to grow, so I’m just gonna keep building off it.”
That’s also Van Gundy’s plan for increasing Williamson’s already significant role in New Orleans’ offense. The Pelicans entered the contest Tuesday ranked 29th in defensive rating (114.8). So, improving in that area is priority No. 1 right now with New Orleans snapping a three-game skid.
But Van Gundy admitted he’s trying to explore even more ways to utilize Williamson, who produced his third game this season in which he racked up 30-plus points while shooting better than 80%.
Serving as more of a ballhandler now out on the perimeter, Williamson has taken on his new responsibilities almost seamlessly, while showing an uncanny knack for creating off the dribble. Williamson attributed that to the time spent as a youngster training as a point guard with his stepfather, Lee Anderson.
“So, a point guard can’t get rattled,” Williamson said. “You’ve always got to remain calm, and always try to make the best play or find the best option. I think it just goes back to that. I’m always on the move. So, the defense not only has to adjust to me getting to a spot. But also, they also have to adjust to me making a move. Also, I feel like I pull the defense in. So, I’m finding my teammates a lot easier.”
Van Gundy envisioned Williamson taking on such a role long before he even took over as coach of the Pelicans.
“I don’t really think it’s much to adapt to for him. I think that he’s played the game like this a lot in his life to be honest,” Van Gundy said. “I go back to training camp last year just watching them from afar. I think that [former coach] Alvin [Gentry] [and former assistant] Chris Finch and their coaching staff wanted to use Zion a lot the way we’re using him now. Then, the injuries sort of took him back, and he was playing limited minutes coming back. They ended up using him pretty much primarily in the post. But I don’t think that was their plan going into everything. Everybody knows that Zion can make plays on the perimeter. We’ve just gone to it more and more and more. Early in the year, we weren’t doing it a whole lot either. It takes a little bit of adaptation. But I think it’s better, not only for him, it’s better for our spacing because now you’ve got a guy with the ball. You’ve got three shooters around him and a big on the baseline. When Zion’s on the ball, we’ve got pretty typical NBA spacing. So, it’s really not hard to play that way. He’s got those abilities, and we keep trying to find more and more ways to use him. That’s on me and our coaching staff to find more ways. We really haven’t explored much new lately because we need to work on our defense in whatever time we have.”
In defeating the Grizzlies for the fifth time in a row, New Orleans put up season highs in points (144), paint points (70) and fast-break points (32), in addition to connecting on 61.5% from the field, which is the team’s best shooting percentage in any game since November of 2014. Josh Hart contributed 27 points, his most ever as a Pelican, while Brandon Ingram chipped in 22 points.
With 44 games remaining, the Pelicans need to make a climb up the Western Conference standings for a realistic shot at advancing to the postseason for the first time since 2018.
Williamson’s continued evolution should factor heavily into that.
“Zion’s a once-in-a-lifetime player and can do a lot of different things on the floor,” Pelicans point guard Lonzo Ball said. “He definitely can score in the post, but he’s also very fluid with the ball up top, and we’re using that to our advantage this year. He’s really a point forward. Guys that are somewhat strong enough to guard him, it’s gonna be difficult for them to stay in front of him. He has enough handle to get to where he needs to go, and then obviously has enough force to get to the rim. So, it’s working out good for him, it’s working out good for us. We like when he has the ball.”
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