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New Orleans Pelicans

One Play: Let's talk about Zion Williamson's defence

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson takes the spotlight.


Context: It didn't take long for Zion Williamson to show why he was the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. After missing 44 games to start the season, he made a statement in his highly anticipated debut with 22 points in only 18 minutes of play. That was the beginning of a historic run that saw him average 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds over the first 19 games of his career.

As dominant as he's been offensively so far in his NBA career, Williamson's defence was starting to get more attention - the bad kind of attention, not the good kind - prior to the NBA season being suspended. It even came up when two members of our NBA.com Global and I debated about whether we'd rather build a team around Williamson or Luka Doncic moving forward.

Most rookies struggle on defence, so it's not a surprise that Williamson has looked lost on that end of the court at times. 19 games is also way too small of a sample size to be drawing too many conclusions from, especially for a 19-year-old who missed a large chunk of the season because he needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, to the point where it's almost pointless to take anything away from the advanced statistics, both good and bad.

MORE: The best highlights from Zion's rookie season

And yet, I don't think it's too early to take a big picture look at Williamson's defence, if only to get an idea of how much he still has to grow and what his ideal role will be. After all, Williamson's defence was seen as a strength coming into the NBA, not a weakness. How he develops defensively, then, will go a long way in determining his ceiling.

The play: First, the bad. Watch what happens on the following play when Williamson tries to defend a pick-and-roll between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez.

Breakdown: The Pelicans go small with Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Williamson. Holiday is guarding Antetokounmpo, leaving Ball to guard Donte Divincenzo, Hart to guard Pat Connaughton, Ingram to guard Wesley Mattews and Williamson to guard Lopez.

With Divincenzo, Connaughton and Matthews standing on the 3-point line, Lopez runs towards Antetokounmpo at the top of the perimeter to set a screen on Holiday, putting Williamson in a pick-and-roll.

Antetokounmpo uses Lopez's screen and Holiday gets caught up in it, which forces Williamson to make a decision as the help defender.

And then this happens...

A few things:

  1. Williamson is way too close to the 3-point line. Antetokounmpo is having the best 3-point shooting season of his career, but you'd still much rather have him pull-up for a 3-pointer than drive to the basket. There's no reason for Williamson to extend himself out as far as he did, although I'm well aware that there is a fine line between giving Antetokounmpo an optimal amount of space and too much space when he's running at you with a full head of steam.
  2. Williamson shows little awareness. My read is that he's gesturing to Ingram to switch onto Lopez thinking that he's going to pop instead of roll. (Half of Lopez's field goal attempts this season have been 3s. It's not a terrible assumption). I've been told that I'm being too generous, but even if that is the case, Williamson loses complete sight of Lopez.
  3. Williamson isn't really guarding anyone. He's basically in no man's land, with his feet squared up to a whole lot of open space. The possession turns into 5-on-4 before he knows it.

The result? Lopez scores an easy layup over Hart, who has to rotate off of Connaughton in the corner to cover for Williamson.

Why it matters: I didn't choose this play to pick on Williamson because, again, he's played in only 19 games and he's a 19-year-old rookie. Instead, I chose it because I think it helps illustrate some of the questions Williamson is going to have to answer to become an impact defender in the NBA given his size and the position he plays.

Like, how many positions can he defend?

The ideal version of Williamson would be able to comfortably guard at least four positions. While traditional wisdom says he's too small to guard power forward and centres at 6-foot-6, he's strong enough to hold his own against bigger players in the post. Maybe not the Joel Embiids and Nikola Jokics of the NBA, but against most big men. For example, he did a surprisingly good job of defending Anthony Davis in their one and only matchup this season despite giving up four inches. What he lacks in size, Williamson makes up for in strength, athleticism and intensity.

Where Williamson needs to show more growth is switching onto perimeter players. It would come in handy in situations like this when he's playing centre because it would give the Pelicans the option of switching more, especially when he's paired with versatile defenders like Holiday and Ball, both of whom have proven that they can defend outside of their position. It's easy to imagine the Pelicans having their own "Death Lineup" in the future built around Holiday, Ball and Williamson where each player on the court can switch one through five.

Williamson just isn't at a stage yet where he can consistently keep up with smaller defenders in space, some of which might have to do with him still working his way back after sitting out half the season. He proved to be a switchable defender in college, so the hope is that he might have more success switching onto guards and forwards once he has his legs underneath him. It's encouraging that he started to look more nimble on defence closer to the season being suspended.

That brings us to the next question: how effective of a help defender can Williamson be in the NBA?

In college, Williamson was a menace of a help defender with averages of 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. In the NBA ... not so much. Through 19 games, he's averaging only 0.8 steals and 0.5 blocks. For context, he's posting a similar steal and block rate to players like Devin Booker, Trae Young, Domantas Sabonis and Tobias Harris, none of whom are exactly known for their defence.

Again, not great, but I'm banking on someone who isn't far removed from doing things like this...

...and this...

...eventually figuring it out.

But the question is how effective of a help defender Williamson can be in the NBA, not can he be an effective help defender.

One player he was compared to in the lead up to the NBA Draft was Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, not necessarily because of how reads the game - Green is a genius in that regard and Williamson clearly still has some ways to go - but because he's a similar build and he has potential to protect the rim, shut down passing lanes and switch across the board as a small ball centre. However, while Williamson and Green are both listed at 6-foot-6, Green's wingspan is three inches longer than Williamson's. It helps, of course, that Williamson is both bigger and more explosive than Green, but him having that much shorter of a wingspan will make it more difficult for him to protect the rim at a similar level as Green did at his prime.

As Spencer Pearlman of The Stepien wrote, "his wingspan and standing reach are both below average for a 3, which might be problematic given his natural position is a 4 (and will likely get some minutes at small ball 5)."

If Williamson can't do some of the same things that has made Green one of the most feared defenders in the league, it will make it harder for the Pelicans to construct small ball lineups around him, especially if he doesn't offer much switchability either. They might have difficulties constructing traditional lineups around him as well because it would put them in the market for shot-blocking centre who can shoot 3s, of which there aren't many in the league.

Therein lies the problem with Williamson right now - he doesn't offer much switchability or rim protection, leading to possessions like this where he roams around aimlessly.

Does that mean he won't ever figure it out? Of course not. If anything, it goes to show how raw Williamson still is, a terrifying reality considering we're talking about a 19-year-old who is putting up numbers we've only ever seen from one rookie before. Because if the same player who is already a mismatch nightmare turns into the multifaceted defender he was projected to be, it's hard to imagine a reality where he isn't one day competing for the title of "best player in the league."

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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