Zion Williamson is a cement mixer on skis who’s not only scoring more points in the paint than anyone else in the league, but also topping what Giannis Antetokounmpo did through both of his MVP seasons. Williamson’s 18.8 points in the paint are 1.2 below what Shaquille O’Neal produced at age 29, and there isn’t much a defense can do once he gets position around the basket, either cutting in from the weakside, putting back someone else’s miss or hurtling in with a live dribble.
The Pelicans know how and where Zion can dominate, but during the offseason they still decided to acquire Steven Adams and give him a two-year contract extension. The idea was that Adams, as one of the strongest humans who’s ever played professional basketball, could fortify New Orleans’s interior defense and provide a consistent physical advantage on the glass, filling in where Zion most needs help while adding to one of his greatest skills. So far, it’s worked well enough: New Orleans is first in defensive rebound rate and third in offensive rebound rate, and only two teams allow a lower percentage of shots at the basket. (Unfortunately for the Pelicans, when opponents get there they don’t miss.)
But there’s a palpable downside, too. As has already been established, Zion lives around the basket—he’s essentially a more accurate and aggressive version of Ben Simmons—despite spending a majority of his minutes next to an old-fashioned center who’s made one three in his entire career. Zion’s “struggle” on most possessions, then, is not just against the defense, but also a claustrophobic work space that would grant more room if he were accompanied by capable outside shooting at all four positions.
So while Zion’s raw strength often lets him muscle through tight spaces to either draw a foul or finish at the basket regardless of who else is on the court, there are still plenty of situations where avoidable resistance slows him down.
One-third of Zion’s action is spent without Adams. In those minutes, his field goal percentage within five feet of the basket elevates from 56.8% to 67.7%, as other individual efficiency numbers (and New Orleans’s pace) all make a notable rise.
New Orleans goes from allowing (a pretty bad) 110.2 points per 100 possessions with Zion and Adams to 117.0 when Williamson is on the floor without him, but they also plummet all the way down to 119.1 when backup center Jaxson Hayes and Zion are a pair. In those lineups, breakdowns like this aren’t uncommon.
It raises the question: If New Orleans is bad on defense when Williamson battles beside another big man whose offensive limitations are the price paid for ostensible stability on the other end, why not just play him at the five? Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy has tried to sprinkle those looks into his rotation whenever possible—usually at the end of the first/third quarter and start of the second/fourth quarter—but those stretches are also when Hayes spells Adams. This needs to change.
It’s time for a more firm commitment to Center Zion by playing him alongside Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Ingram, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, JJ Redick, Josh Hart or Lonzo Ball in units that can offer a bit more versatility and outside shooting. Those groups also have individual defenders who can force turnovers and guard up a position. Rim protection clearly isn’t there, which defies one of Van Gundy’s more fundamental basketball beliefs, but the offensive upside that can manifest with a modernized approach may outweigh some of the team’s more portentous concerns about the other side.
And if New Orleans’s defense stinks slightly more than it already does for a few more minutes every night but Zion gets to make fewer hard closeouts to the three-point line because he’s defending a stretch four instead of another paint-bound big man, fantastic.
This doesn’t mean Van Gundy should bench Hayes forever, but his on-court time should come at Adams’s expense, not lineups that allow Zion more space to do the most damage he possibly can, as efficiently as possible. According to Cleaning the Glass, only 7% of Zion’s minutes have been at the five. The numbers yielded are favorable, albeit from a small sample size. But some things can’t be measured statistically; when you watch those possessions unfold it almost looks like a completely different team.
The clip above vs. Williamson’s earlier dive against the Pacers is the comfortable gap between sitting in economy on a trans-Atlantic flight and stretching your body across an empty California King. Give Zion enough time to make three dribbles against a single defender, and it’s game over.
The look provides myriad benefits, from forcing the opponent to downsize, to upping the Pelicans’ three-point rate—it jumps from a paltry 28.2% when Zion is at the four to 45.3% when he’s a center, according to Cleaning the Glass—to surrounding him with capable ballhandlers who can drive a closeout, force help and then let Zion stamp an exclamation point on the play.
In space, the Pelicans can execute funkier offense, say, by running an inverted two-man game where Redick sets a ball screen—something the 76ers used to do with him and Joel Embiid—so Zion can get downhill against discombobulated opposition.
Center Zion isn’t a permanent solution to New Orleans’s problems, and the 20-year-old’s inability to threaten defenses with a jump shot can’t be overlooked as a key reason why those lineups are currently necessary. With a consistent 16-footer, his relationship with Adams would establish more on-court pliability. And an ideal roster could thread the needle a bit better, balancing the need for size and space. The Pelicans do not have such a roster.
In the meantime, finding pieces that support and maximize Zion’s growth should be the organization’s priority. And even though he regularly perseveres in spite of flawed surroundings, the situation begs Van Gundy to find his franchise player as many minutes at the five as he possibly can. It may not be Zion’s long-term position, but right now it’s the best of several inadequate options.