New Orleans Pelicans

Stat Just Happened: Zion Williamson is dominating the paint in a way we haven't seen since Shaquille O'Neal

"Stat Just Happened" is our new series where we'll pair an important stat with how it actually unfolded on the floor. Our aim? To answer key questions, uncover hidden truths and peel back the curtain on why some numbers matter more than others.

19.5

According to NBA.com , that's how many points per game Zion Williamson is averaging in the paint this season.

Why is that notable? A couple of reasons.

First, it's the highest mark in the league. The player closest to Williamson is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is averaging 16.9 points per game in the paint. Following him: Nikola Jokic (14.5), Andre Drummond (13.9), Clint Capela (13.0) and Domantas Sabonis (12.8).

Second, it's the most paint points anyone has averaged in a single season in almost two decades. Since 2000, the only player who has scored in the paint at a higher clip than what we're seeing from Williamson this season is Shaquille O'Neal.

Whenever you're rubbing shoulders with a first-ballot Hall of Famer, you know you're doing something right.

Most paint points per game since 2000 ( NBA.com/Stats )
Player Season Points
Shaquille O'Neal 2001-02 20.1
Shaquille O'Neal 2000-01 20.0
Shaquille O'Neal 2002-03 19.6
Zion Williamson 2020-21 19.5
Giannis Antetokounmpo 2019-20 17.5
Giannis Antetokounmpo 2018-19 17.5
Shaquille O'Neal 2004-05 17.3

Williamson dominated the paint in the little we saw of him last season, but the way he's doing it this season is different. According to NBA.com , 76.2 percent of the field goals he made as a rookie were assisted. (To boot, many of his "unassisted baskets" were putbacks). This season, that number has plummeted to 59.8 percent. He's gone from being more of a finisher to more of a playmaker, getting more opportunities to create for himself out of isolation and in the pick-and-roll.

What makes Williamson unique in those situations is ... well, a number of things.

For one, he's built like a tank. Listed at 284 pounds, there are only three players - Tacko Fall, Boban Marjanovic and Jusuf Nurkic - who currently weigh more than Williamson. He's slightly undersized to play power forward or centre at 6-foot-6, but he has the size to power his way through bigger defenders when he gets into the paint.

For example, look at where two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert is before he leaves his feet to challenge Williamson's shot on this possession:

Now look at where Gobert lands:

It looks like Gobert believes Williamson should've been whistled for an offensive foul - he does appear to extend his arm ever-so-slightly - but Williamson almost knocking Gobert off of his feet goes to show how powerful he is when he gains any sort of momentum.

Williamson's body control is incredible. Not only can he play through contact, but he can also absorb contact and adjust while he's midair.

Williamson plays with so much force and controls it so well that it makes backing off of him tricky.

With Williamson rarely looking to score outside of the paint - he's taken a grand total of eight shots from midrange and 24 shots from 3-point range this season - you'd think giving him space would be the easiest way to contain him. The problem? More space means more opportunity for him to gain steam.

Dropping a 7-foot-4 centre with a 7-foot-10 wingspan to the paint should work...

...but Marjanovic probably wasn't expecting Williamson to take off around the dotted line and jump so high that he could softly lay the ball in.

(By the way, notice how low Steven Adams set the screen for Williamson? It's something the Pelicans do often because it makes it harder for his defender to duck underneath the screen. Smart stuff.)

It doesn't help that Williamson is lightning quick. Players his size shouldn't be able to move and change directions as quickly as he does. Nekias Duncan of Basketball News put it best: Williamson plays with the speed and dexterity of a Russell Westbrook and the power of a Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He has a good enough handle to blow by defenders who press up on him.

His crossover makes him a tough cover in space because of how quickly he takes advantage of the smallest of openings.

And he's getting better at reading defences. If his defender anticipates the screen, he'll take off in the other direction.

All of this is to say: Williamson a walking mismatch. He's too big and strong for most guards and too quick and athletic for most bigs. Even if a team thinks they have one player who has a decent shot at hanging with him, they almost certainly don't have two, making switching against the Pelicans a dangerous game.

To tie a bow on it, Williamson is a good passer. His passing chops caught my eye early in his rookie season and he's shown real signs of improvement this season.

Teams can't simply sell out on his drives and giving him space when he has the ball in his hands makes them vulnerable to handoffs.

It's scary to think that Williamson is doing this while having played less than a season's worth of games in his career. He still has a lot of developing to do - imagine him with even a semi-reliable jump shot - and yet he's already one of the league's most dominant scorers, a 20-year-old who is doing things we haven't seen since Shaquille O'Neal.

If Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlise saying Williamson is a " Shaquille O'Neal-type force of nature with a point guard skill set " wasn't enough, the proof is in that one key number...

19.5

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