Back in the spring, after he averaged 26 points per game during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it would have been hard to believe that the hype around Zion Williamson could reach new heights.
But now, a week from opening night of the NBA season, there’s perhaps more confidence than ever that Williamson will become a star. That’s thanks to some gaudy preseason numbers: The No. 1 overall pick is averaging better than 23 points, six rebounds and two assists per game in just 27 minutes a night through four preseason games. He’s shot a ridiculous 71 percent from the field, all while the Pelicans have gone 4-0.
All of which raises a few obvious questions: First, is there any way Zion, as a rookie, can keep this up once the games actually count? And what challenges will NBA defenses throw at him?
Before we get into just how likely it is that Williamson maintains this level of play, it seems worth establishing just how dominant he’s been thus far. As of Tuesday morning, there were only three players averaging more points per game this preseason than Zion’s 23.3, and all three of them — Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Stephen Curry — have previously won MVP. Williamson put on show last week in Chicago, scoring 29 points on 12-of-13 shooting — the most points an NBA player has had in an exhibition game on 90 percent shooting or better in the past 20 years. The Bulls couldn’t do a thing to keep him out of the paint, as he scored nine of those 12 baskets from 1 foot or closer and made two others from 2 feet away. (His longest made shot was from 5 feet away.) His shot chart from that night was both comical and a thing of beauty:
The highlights themselves aren’t bad, either:
Williamson’s preseason success puts him in uncharted territory. Over the past 20 years, no rookie has finished their preseason campaign averaging more than 20 points per game. Steve Francis, who finished with 19.6 points a night back in 1999, was the closest. And in terms of true shooting percentage, barely anyone with his scoring output has come close to touching Zion’s level of efficiency, at 73.7 percent thus far. (Jimmer Fredette, at 70.2 percent in 2011, and DeAndre Ayton, at 65.1 percent last year, are the only ones in the same ballpark over the past two decades.)
While it may seem unlikely that Williamson will continue this level of production during the regular season, it’s worth noting that, collectively, high-scoring rookies don’t see huge decreases in their point totals and efficiency metrics when the real games start. According to ESPN Stats & Information Group, the 27 rookies who’ve averaged 15 points per game or more in their first preseason since 1999 have seen scoring and true shooting percentage declines of just 1.1 points and 2.4 percentage points, respectively, from the preseason to the regular season.
And it’s worth noting that six of the players from that group — Kevin Durant, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Donovan Mitchell and Trae Young — actually increased both their scoring average and their true-shooting percentage from the preseason to the regular season.
We haven’t seen anyone, not even LeBron James, have their way as a rookie this quickly. Sure, we can attribute some of Williamson’s adjustment to his level of competition in the preseason, when defenses aren’t sharp. And perhaps it’s reasonable to think that no one wants to step in front of the runaway train that is Williamson just yet, especially in a game that ultimately doesn’t matter.
Still, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry has used Williamson within the offense effectively, having him catch the ball on the move to make use of his athleticism. And by having him curl to the free throw line to take feeds from JJ Redick, it puts the defense in a bit of a bind, as defenders will either have to risk guarding a downhill Zion with a single player or have someone come down and help, which would leave one of the league’s best shooters open from the perimeter. (It will also be worth watching the progression of Lonzo Ball’s jumper, which could open things up more.)
Teams will undoubtedly work to make things more difficult for Williamson, starting a week from now. One clear way to do that: Avoid committing turnovers, as Williamson gets to show off his otherworldly athleticism in transition, which becomes more likely following a miscue. And when you inevitably turn it over at some point, be sure to get back in transition and force New Orleans to actually run its offense, as opposed to letting the up-tempo club run wild. (The Pelicans were second in pace last season.)
And it goes without saying that defenses, when possible, will pack the paint the best they can to discourage him from going to the basket. We even saw him get the best of Rudy Gobert, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, showing that 1-on-1 matchups — even against elite stoppers and rim protectors — won’t always be enough to deter him.
His shot profile alone, with a whopping 34 of his 35 preseason makes coming from the paint, suggests that teams are going to dare him to shoot from the outside. (In this regard, perhaps the most comparable rookie in recent memory would be Blake Griffin, who scored 79 percent of his preseason points as a rookie from inside the paint back in 2010, per ESPN Stats & Info.) Teams would prefer to give up an occasional 3-pointer as opposed to surrendering a high-percentage layup.
This strategy can work — particularly in the playoffs when things grind to a halt — but there are a couple of challenges it presents for defenses. First, sitting too far back in the paint may provide Zion with enough space to get a running start, and we’ve already seen he’s athletic enough to jump over almost anyone who stands in his way. Secondly, Williamson is very good at moving without the ball and burrowing into open spots on the court. So if teams play far off him, he’ll likely still find ways to get involved, either as an on-ball screener who then rolls to the basket, or as an off-ball cutter who does damage that way.
However it all plays out, at least we’ll finally get the chance to see how Williamson stacks up and whether he really turns out to be the franchise-changing player so many think he’s capable of becoming. But from the numbers he’s put up thus far this preseason, it seems like we shouldn’t be surprised if that indeed turns out to be the case.
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