Progress isn’t linear for every NBA star – development can be torturous and unpredictable for a variety of reasons – but throughout the history of the league, the third year is one where so many all-time greats have made a difference. huge leap forward. That’s when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, and Anthony Davis established themselves as draws and household names, with statistical surges that occurred as their responsibilities and their expectations were increasing.
It may seem reckless to compare Zion Williamson with the aforementioned megastars, but the prodigious 21-year-old is on the same path. As he enters the third year of a career that has little more than cobwebs for roof, despite a little confused about his convalescence after an off-season foot operation– Williamson’s rise to life as an unsolved offensive weapon could be the most important subplot of the 2021-22 season.
There are 94 players in NBA history who averaged at least 20 points per game in their second season. Williamson, whose 27.0 points ranked eighth last year, leads them all in field goal percentage, field goal percentage and actual shoot percentage (where the gap between him and second place, Charles Barkley, is 64.9% to 61.9% – the same difference between Barkley and Charles Smith (15th)).
As historically effective as Zion once has been, there are a myriad of reasons why it’s safe to assume he’s barely scratched the surface of what he ultimately will be. Much of this has to do with the selection of shots. Instead of using outside fire (or operating in queues that prioritize space), almost all of his damage was done to the basket or on the way, undeterred no matter what. how tight the tusks try to pack the paint.
Williamson attempted 816 shots inside the restricted area last year, 267 (!) More attempts than any other player. (The gap between Zion and Clint Capela, who came second, was the same as Capela and Luka Dončić, 40th.) He also shot 67.2% there, which is remarkable considering his high volume and his self-sufficiency.
One of the most significant differences between Williamson’s first two seasons was how often he scored without the direct help of a teammate. According to Cleaning the Glass, the percentage of his field goals that were assisted fell 20%, including 22% at the edge.
As “Point Zion” he was confident around the perimeter with a live dribble, diving into the crowd and then rising with the ball in his left hand, still in the air as everyone began their descent. When the defenses overloaded to keep him at bay, Williamson read the ground and found the man open (his assist rate increased from 13.3% as a rookie to 19.7% in second year) .
He could also fill a more traditional role as a jumbo jumper, even flashing both sides in the same possession, as seen below against the Jazz.
Zion’s post movements are simple because they don’t need to be wide. More often than not, as soon as he recovers an entry pass, Zion performs a dribble or two, throws his defender off balance and then rushes to the cup. His speed, power, and coordination outweighed the predictability of it all.
In order for basketball to be as smooth as possible, five teammates must complete each other at the same time. That hasn’t been the case with Zion, who can score when he wants to no matter what is going on around him.
Last year there were 29 games where Williamson scored 20 or more points while shooting at least 60% from the field. Although the season lasted just 72 games and he appeared in 61 of them, no player in the past decade has beaten that number. From there, it goes without saying that Williamson demanded double teams. And when they didn’t come, he was harder to stop one-on-one than any player in recent memory. According to Synergy Sports, he scored 63.2% of the time attacking a single cover in isolation, the highest rating among 400 players who have completed at least 100 of those possessions. (Prior to that, no one in Synergy’s database – which dates back to the 2004-05 season – had come close to 60%.) Even strong, smart defenders were completely helpless in trying to stop him on an island.
Williamson was 14th in live shooting percentage and fourth in PER last season, largely because he refused to settle for shots he wasn’t comfortable taking. He hardly ever hit from the midrange and was 10 for 34 behind the three-point line. Even though his success took away any weaknesses that would otherwise have consumed this type of criticism, he’s spent the offseason expanding an attack that should also benefit more teammates who won’t be ignored behind the arc.
Next come Devonte ‘Graham, Tomáš Satoranský and Trey Murphy III, with someone like Nickeil Alexander-Walker (who made 40.2% of his three places last season) potentially replacing Lonzo Ball in the starting lineup. Take out Eric Bledsoe (who is a career 33.7% three-point shooter) and Steven Adams (who has attempted 16 in eight seasons). The Pelicans roster doesn’t confuse anyone for the 2017 Warriors, but Zion will always be surrounded by deeper threats than at any point in his career. (Even with Jaxson Hayes and Jonas Valančiūnas on the roster, it’s also possible that Zion will spend time in the center in similarly sized switchable rosters.)
“I have a lot of shooters this year,” Williamson said in a recent interview, before noting that he has spent the offseason working on his mid-range floats and jumpers. If his long twos are respectable enough to keep opponents from relaxing every time he pulls them up, it will accentuate his first step and reduce the pounding he takes in the paint.
This brings us to one of the two roadblocks that currently stand between Zion and a dozen back-to-back All-NBA teams: his body. A pattern of injuries (some random and others potentially caused by his unprecedented combination of size and power) that dates back to his time as a high school phenomenon is a plausible cause for concern. Williamson missed the first 44 games of his rookie season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn right meniscus. Last year, a broken finger kept him out of the last six games. A few months later, he underwent surgery to repair a broken fifth metatarsal in his right foot. None of this is great news, even though he is set to perform on opening night.
(In May, Williamson recognized how important his fitness really is: “I think there is another piece of equipment that I can achieve when it comes to my weight and conditioning. But… I don’t want to get to it. a place where I’m like, Yes, I have lost a lot of weight, but I am not feeling strong. I can’t do some things that I would do before. ”)
The other obstacle is defense. Williamson lacks ball awareness. He helps out, bites on fake balls, and has yet to translate some weird physical gifts (NBA general managers recently voted him as the league’s most athletic player) that are regularly seen when New Orleans has possession when she tries to stop. Countless examples could be seen last year, but the one below, where Zion leaves PJ Tucker – a 36-year-old who scored a total of five baskets on records last season – loose on one stroke. , could be the most disturbing.
Ideally, new Pelicans coach Willie Green will adopt a scheme that simplifies Zion’s responsibilities. When former Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy decided to streamline his team’s pick-and-roll coverage by ditching the big guys instead of having them stay at the point of attack, New Orleans’ defensive rating soared. soaring in the standings, including with Zion on the court, where they had the second best defense in the NBA after the all-star break.
Williamson is not desperate on that side. And when compared to his huge offensive impact, he doesn’t need to make an All-Defensive squad. Anytime a 20-year-old averages 27 points per game, shows an outrageous 67.3 live-shoot percentage in critical time and leads his team with a significant point differential, the next step has the potential to to be monumental.
In LeBron’s third season, he averaged 31.4 points, the most of his career. Wade won a championship and was named MVP of the finals. Paul’s 11.6 assists were also a career high and he finished second in the MVP race. Durant increased his average by nearly five points and led the league for the first time. Davis dominated the NBA in PER and had the highest field goal percentage of his career. All but Wade made their first All-NBA first-team appearance in their third year. There are few reasons why Williamson can’t do the same, with Most Valuable Player and a scoring title in the realm of possibility.
A historic leap is not guaranteed. But if Zion can stay healthy, take advantage of the most compatible pieces around him, and even slightly improve his touch and defensive tenacity, the story is exactly what he will do.
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