Zion Williamson already enjoying the extra space to operate in NBA offense

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

LAS VEGAS – As college basketball’s biggest star last season, Zion Williamson was the subject of non-stop attention, which may sound glamorous off the court, but on the hardwood, it meant being the focal point of every opposing defense. With no illegal-defense rule in the NCAA, defenses can clog the paint at will in an attempt to smother elite players – a strategy that doesn't work in the NBA, due to the shooting ability and level of talent.

When Williamson joined his New Orleans summer league teammates Tuesday for practice in UNLV’s cavernous Thomas & Mack Center, the 6-foot-7 rookie often had plenty of room to work in the paint, also partly due to the deeper three-point line, which prevents defenders from sagging too far off their man. Williamson has immediately taken a liking to the less-restrictive style of play.

“I do like the spacing a lot more,” said the 18-year-old, whose quick first step and athleticism allow him to pivot around defenders for lefty dunks. “(Defenders) can’t really (just) stand in the paint, so it gives me a lot more room to operate.

“The three-point line does create more spacing, because everybody can shoot. You can’t really help off too much, otherwise it’s an open three. I love the spacing. It’s almost like a dream come true for me. Because every time I attack the basket, there is space for me.”

At Duke, Williamson often created offense for himself or others from the perimeter or mid-range area by relying on his varied skills, including the ability to drive past defenders or power his way to the basket. He noted after Tuesday’s practice that he’s looking forward to potentially showing another dimension of his game, one that will originate closer to the paint and the rim.

“I feel like I don’t get enough credit for my low-post game,” he said. “I can attack off the wing, I can attack from up top, but in college it’s a little different, because everyone can help over (defensively). In the NBA, they can help over, but not really (as much), so I’m able to show more of my skill.”

As New Orleans made preparations for the start of practices in Nevada, Pelicans summer head coach Fred Vinson spent a significant amount of time watching video of Williamson with Duke, attempting to determine how best to use him. New Orleans plans to take full advantage of every aspect of Williamson’s unique array of strengths; the forward projects to be a confounding problem for opposing defenses, too fast and athletic for many bigger frontcourt players, too strong for ones with less bulk.

“There wasn’t much that necessarily surprised me, because I’ve watched so much film of him,” Vinson pointed out of his first few days coaching Williamson. “I’ve seen a little bit of everything and tried to cater some of what we do to that, to put him in position to be successful. Obviously he’s so explosive, that if you get him (the ball) inside, he can create some mismatches. He will definitely be tough to handle. “

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