Zion Williamson takes a layup at Miami on Christmas

Through 82 career games, versatile Zion Williamson continues to make gigantic strides

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

The Internet-breaking videos of his jaw-dropping high school dunks have granted Zion Williamson household-name status in basketball for a half-decade, which only makes it more difficult to remember that his NBA career remains in its infancy. He’s still not even old enough to purchase alcohol – he won’t turn 21 until July – and had not even played the equivalent of a full NBA regular season until Thursday, when he reached career Game 82 in Oklahoma City. He’s already been an All-Star and achieved countless statistical feats that place his name next to some of the league’s all-time greats. Yet the future possibilities seem to be what’s most fascinating about Williamson to those in the sport.

“I mean, he’s a historically talented player,” Brooklyn Coach Steve Nash said of the second-year pro. “Physicality, strength, size, speed, explosiveness, quickness, mobility, great hands, incredible getting to the basket, finishing at the basket. Also a decent play-maker and capable of shooting threes. So he is a remarkable talent. He’s only going to get better as he continues to develop his game and his understanding, his comfort with the league.”

“The scary thing with Zion is, it’s going to get better and better,” Pelicans Coach Stan Van Gundy said of the forward’s upside. “His best years will be far beyond when I’m around here. His shooting is going to improve – he’s going to be able to shoot it on the perimeter. His free-throw shooting will continue to improve. He’ll have the ball in his hands late in the game, learning to make those crucial decisions from out top as a point guard. His defense will improve, as most guys do as they get older. He’s scratching the surface right now.”

One reason there’s so much confidence in Williamson’s ability to rapidly progress and improve? Just examine the strides he’s already made. The Duke product’s official NBA debut was only 15 months ago, yet he’s quickly gotten better in various aspects of his increasingly well-rounded game. Borrowing from a recent popular trend on Twitter and social media – where Williamson’s unparalleled athleticism and soaring exploits first became well-known – a look at how far he’s come in key areas over a mere 82-game timeframe:

SCORING

How it started:
As a rookie, Williamson showed glimpses of his ability to rack up a bunch of points in rapid fashion, including his memorable debut vs. San Antonio in which he improbably drained four straight three-pointers. After a disjointed 24-game season spread over a seven-month stretch, he averaged 22.5 points on 58 percent shooting. Due to injury and a pandemic, it was only a glimpse of what he’s capable of, but it still stood out as one of the best offensive performances by a first-year pro in league annals.

How it’s going:
Williamson went from historic rookie numbers to historic numbers, period. His scoring average is now 26.8 points, while shooting 61 percent. The only other NBA player with a comparable combination in those categories this season is league MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic (26.3 ppg, 57 percent shooting). Williamson has 19 games of 30-plus points in 2020-21, after doing so three times as a rookie.

Few players have ever been as forceful in driving to the basket for dunks and layups, even in half-court situations. His combination of ball-handling, elite feet and overwhelming strength have made opponents search for ways to keep him out of the paint, but few teams possess the personnel to match up with a muscular, 6-foot-7 forward who’s also quick.

“Once he gets those shoulders by you, it’s tough to do anything to get back in front of him,” Sacramento Coach Luke Walton said of one problem. “There are some similarities in the idea of defending (Giannis Antetokounmpo) in that you’d prefer to get them to take a jump shot, because they’re both pretty unstoppable getting to the rim. If you get up on him too close, there’s a good chance he’s going to get by you.”

PLAYMAKING

How it started:
His college season at Duke featured a few highlight-reel dishes to teammates and above-average court vision, but as a Pelicans rookie, there were only sporadic signs that he could be a standout distributor. He averaged 2.1 assists, while often being ambushed by defenses who ran constant or unexpected double-teams at him, sometimes no matter where he caught the ball in the offense.

How it’s going:
He’s nearly doubled his assist average (3.6), highlighted by 11 games of six-plus assists, including in wins over Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Phoenix. Opposing coaches have noticed that the strategy of swarming him, forcing him to find an open shooter – as San Antonio did in Game 1 of his career – is already not nearly as effective as it was initially.

“He has the ball in his hands a lot now to initiate offense, whether it’s bringing it up the floor off a rebound, or in transition,” Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff said. “Or he’s bringing it up off makes and getting into a pick-and-roll. He is such as force, such a unique player, that he’s hard to guard.”

“When you’re able to put the ball in your best player’s hands, he’s such a dynamic play-maker, scorer,” Portland’s Terry Stotts said. “He gets to the basket and is a willing passer, so it’s tough (to defend) – it takes a team effort. (The Pelicans) want the ball in his hands and if he starts with the ball in his hands, that makes it even easier for them.”

Zion Williamson rebounds the ball against the San Antonio Spurs

REBOUNDING

How it started:
He was a decent rebounder as a rookie, averaging 6.3, but coaches and Williamson himself noted that it was a facet of his game he wanted to improve. His timing, leaping ability and an elite second jump will likely keep him a menace on the offensive boards throughout his NBA career, but he only grabbed 3.6 defensive rebounds per game in 2019-20.

How it’s going:
In his second season, he’s bumped his defensive rebound average to 4.4 and upped his overall rebounding average to 7.1. The combination of the boards he gets and the attention he draws from opponents trying to keep him away from the glass has led to New Orleans leading the NBA in rebounding. It’s also given the Pelicans more opportunities to let “Point Zion” secure a defensive board and launch a fast break himself, without needing to slow down by dishing to a guard.

“That’s great for us, not only in terms of saving possessions,” Van Gundy said of Williamson’s improved rebounding, “but also some of your best fast breaks – as we’ve seen with Josh Hart – (come from) being able to rebound the ball and push it the other way.”

Zion Williamson shoots a free throw against the Detroit Pistons

FOUL SHOOTING

How it started:
After shooting in the low 60s percentage-wise at Duke, he shot 64 percent as an NBA rookie, not making teams consistently pay for hacking him on his powerful drives to the basket. Out of only 24 games, he had five games in which he missed five or more free throws, including a 1/6 at Golden State.

How it’s going:
Although he’s still subject to some ups and downs from week to week, he’s made major strides overall, shooting 70 percent, in far more attempts (495 compared to 178 as a rookie). He’s turned in a pair of 9/10 games this season, as well as two perfect nights on six attempts.

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OVERALL

How it started:
A limited number of games played kept him from having a realistic chance to wrest the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year trophy away from Memphis guard Ja Morant, but Williamson still was a ROY finalist. He demonstrated his immense promise and potential, despite dealing with minute restrictions at the start and close to his rookie year. He logged 30-plus minutes in only 11 games.

How it’s going:
A first All-Star appearance came as no surprise in March. He’s captivated fans everywhere and made the Pelicans a national TV staple, as well as a League Pass favorite. Williamson’s name has often come up in statistical comparisons to feats only legends like Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have accomplished.

“He still hasn’t played the equivalent of a full (season), and he’s doing what he’s doing,” Van Gundy said, speaking to out-of-town media members. “So yeah, he’s amazing. He’s unselfish, smart as hell. The sky’s the limit. Our fans and our writers get to see him every night, and after a while you start to take him for granted. But when you only see him every once in a while, you say, ‘Woah, this guy is something completely different from what you see every other night.’ ”

“He’s an absolute handful offensively, and I think the most encouraging thing is he’s starting to add the passing element to his game, which I think the Pelicans thought he’d be able to do,” New York Times writer Marc Stein told Bally Sports early in 2020-21. “He’s a much better facilitator than advertised. We’re seeing him embrace the passing game and mix that into his arsenal, besides his incredible efficiency as an offensive player. There is so much upside offensively.”

For his part, Williamson has sounded pleased with the improvements he’s made this season, but there is one jump he’s intently focused on that he hasn’t been able to accomplish. It’s certain to be at the top of his list in 2021-22.

“I feel like I’ve come a long way, definitely,” said Williamson, who turns 21 on July 6. “But as you know me, the direction I want to go is winning. So I still have some ways to (go to) achieve that.”

Van Gundy has made a point to keep Williamson from getting discouraged on the nights when he doesn’t play well or the team sustains a disappointing defeat. The longtime NBA head coach recognizes that Williamson’s performance sometimes brings unrealistic expectations.

“He’s an extremely smart guy and he will learn,” Van Gundy said of Williamson continuing to progress. “He’s great already. But because he’s so great at 20, people’s expectations I think have run a little bit crazy. As a result, the criticism of some of his decisions is a little bit over the top.

“What he’s doing at 20 years old is pretty phenomenal. We’ve seen everything, from post-ups, to handling the ball at the point, to attacking the basket, to making plays for other people. His development has been incredibly quick and we only expect him to continue to get better over the next few years. This guy is going to be improving in this league for a long, long time.”

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