Zion Williamson drives against Philadelphia's Ben Simmons

‘Point Zion’ produces big night vs. 76ers, will be part of late-season attack for Pelicans

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Steven Adams could only shake his head in amusement.

After Adams watched Zion Williamson tear through Philadelphia’s defense Friday for countless paint scores, with 2:27 remaining in regulation, the second-year pro decided to pull up and sink a slick, mid-range baseline jumper, giving New Orleans an 11-point lead. Good luck stopping that.

“He hit a baseline jump shot today,” Adams said, chuckling at the idea of Williamson adding a new element to his offensive repertoire. “That’s got to be scary (for opponents), mate.”

Frightening indeed, the prospect of the 20-year-old Williamson being able to stop on a dime and sink a jumper before he even needs to hurl himself into the paint. NBA defenses are already having major problems keeping the Duke product away from the rim, even when they devote five men to that objective. That was again the case Friday, when Williamson led New Orleans to a 101-94 victory by scoring 37 points, two shy of his career high. In his best all-around performance to date among 71 NBA games, he also set a career high with 15 rebounds and tied his mark by handing out eight assists vs. the 76ers.

Williamson’s mid-range bucket was his only score outside the paint among 15 field goals, a shot he described with a smile as something “I have in my bag.” The All-Star forward credited stepfather Lee Anderson for helping him expand his game as a youngster, after he ran the offense all night Friday with starting point guard Lonzo Ball (left hip flexor strain) sidelined.

“My stepfather trained me to be a point guard,” Williamson said, partly alluding to his eight-assist outing. “That was normal. It was just having the opportunity to go and show it. It just feels natural to me. I’ve been playing the game since I was 4. I’m still learning, but certain things feel natural.”

Williamson also gave kudos to Pelicans assistant Teresa Weatherspoon for continually encouraging him to take a mid-range shot, even if only as a one-time, test run.

“(It was about) my confidence and going deeper into my arsenal,” Williamson said of his two points that excited Pelicans teammates both on the court and on the sideline. “T-Spoon was the reason I did that. She said, ‘Just give me one (attempt) – if you don’t like it, you don’t have to shoot it again.’ I shot it and it felt good. I liked the result, to be honest.”

The Pelicans (23-29) felt the same way about the outcomes of Friday’s games around the Western Conference. A victory over formidable Philadelphia, combined with Washington’s upset win over 10th-place Golden State (24-28), moved New Orleans to within a game of the final play-in berth. In addition, ninth-place San Antonio (24-26) lost at Denver, meaning the Spurs are just two games ahead of the Pelicans. At season’s end, the No. 9 seed will host No. 10 in a single-elimination scenario to tip off the NBA’s new play-in tournament format.

New Orleans, which has 20 games left to try to catch teams like the Warriors and Spurs in the standings, has battled injuries since the start of April, but still can extend its 2020-21 campaign beyond mid-May with a strong close to the 72-game schedule. It appears the Pelicans will lean further into the concept of “Point Zion” over the final five weeks of the regular season, allowing him to maximize his scoring and passing ability.

“I know we talk about strength a lot, but that’s the least interesting thing in his game, him being a strong dude,” Adams said. “His touch is so good, his footwork is insane. He’s seen little hints of (playing point guard) earlier in the year, so it wasn’t completely foreign to him. It’s just the volume (that was different Friday).”

“It was impressive. We’ll see more of it,” Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy said of Williamson at the controls of the NBA’s eighth-ranked offense. “Like I say to (media members) all the time, he’s still only 20 years old, hasn’t played a full season’s worth of games. Not every night is going to be like tonight, but we want to get him more experience at (this) going forward, because I think that’s where his future is in this game. He just needs more reps. We’ve increased it throughout the year, giving him more opportunities. We’d like to give him more going forward.”

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