Nylon Calculus Rookie Review: What did the Pelicans see from Zion Williamson?

Even if the NBA regular season is canceled, we’ve seen enough to start assessing the first seasons of notable rookies. What did the New Orleans Pelicans see from Zion Williamson?

Zion Williamson’s rookie debut was going to be a spectacle, especially after he conducted a months-long assault on the rims at Duke. Unfortunately, that debut was delayed considerably because of surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Williamson didn’t play his first NBA game until Jan. 22 but he made sure it was worth the wait.

Williamson had a historic night, finishing with 22 points on just 11 shots, knocking down all four of his 3-point attempts and adding 7 rebounds and 3 assists. He only appeared in 19 games before the season was shut down but he averaged 23.6 points and made nearly 60 percent of his shots, with what felt like a bajillion highlight dunks along the way. It’s a far smaller sample than any of the other rookies we’ve looked at in our rookie review series but what did we learn about the NBA players Zion is going to be?

What did we expect?

Williamson was overwhelmingly seen as the top prospect in the draft and there simply wasn’t much mystery. In our last Big Board before the draft, Trevor Magnotti offered this summation of Williamson’s skill and athletic package and how it might translate to his rookie season.

“Williamson probably won’t be a world-beater right away. He’ll wow immediately with his athleticism and finishing touch, but he probably needs too much improvement as a shooter and ball-handler to make him an effective focal point. That may separate him from his peers in the elite class of prospects, like Karl-Anthony Towns and Ben Simmons, early on. But at a baseline, he has talent in each of those areas, and he’s a gifted passer for his skill set. As he continues to grow, his athleticism will likely make his skill growth exponential, as any small ball-handling improvement will make him that much quicker going towards the rim and any threat to shoot will open up the rest of his game. And any worries about his defensive position will likely be overcome by that athleticism and instincts, which allow him to project towards becoming a frightening free safety approaching what peak LeBron James was in Miami.”

The expectation was that Williamson would likely challenge for the Rookie of the Year Award and look like a future star. The questions were about how NBA-ready each of his different skills might be and how long we might have to wait to really see the shape of his ceiling.

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What did we get?

The most striking thing about Williamson’s brief rookie season was, of course, his scoring — both the volume and efficiency. Williamson averaged more than 30 points per 100 possessions (36.6 to be exact) with a true shooting percentage above 60 (62.4 percent). The only other rookie in the 3-point era to have played at least 500 minutes and hit those benchmarks was Arvydas Sabonis who, of course, joined the NBA after a lengthy and highly decorated European career. He was 31 years old as a rookie — Zion doesn’t turn 20 until July 6.

As with everything about Williamson’s rookie season, you have to weigh the eye-popping numbers against the relatively small sample. At just 565 minutes in 19 games, he didn’t really get the opportunity to build feedback loops, turning game experience into growth. He put up historic numbers relying mostly on instinct, athleticism and the skill base he’d built up with one season at Duke.

There could be some regression to the mean over a longer season but some things, like his ability to get and make shots at the rim, seem like pure products of that instinct, athleticism and skill. That’s what makes him so utterly unique and the production so seemingly sustainable.

Williamson led the league in field-goal attempts at the rim per 36 minutes, by an enormous margin. He was at 15.9 with Montrezl Harrell, Russell Westbrook, Andre Drummond and Giannis Antetokounmpo as the only other players in double-digits. As you can see though, Williamson is on the far end of the spectrum in terms of how many of his shots at the rim were assisted.

That may imply that he’s largely benefiting from the spacing talents and passing abilities of his teammates, but this ability to simply make himself available is one of the things that makes him so special.

He has incredible hands and can get higher than anyone else but he’s also a fantastic receiver and his hands are like rubber cement for loose balls (he averaged more offensive loose balls recovered than anyone else in the league). You can throw the ball anywhere near him and he’s going to catch it. He runs the floor relentlessly, crashes the offensive glass, makes smart cuts and whether by virtue of his first step (quickness) or deep position (strength) he can turn any simple entry pass into an assist.

Defenses didn’t get much chance to learn his tendencies and adjust but, honestly, it probably doesn’t matter. It’s hard to see how he doesn’t average 20 points per game on high efficiency for the next half-decade, at least, just finishing shots in the paint. That’s his floor and even after 19 games, it seems relatively secure.

What is still a bit undefined is Williamson’s ceiling, the diverse array of things he could offer the Pelicans outside the paint and the ways in which he could adjust and expand in a hypothetical playoff series where an opponent decides to just pack the paint and make someone else on the team beat them.

Just 23 of Williamson’s shots (about eight percent) came outside the paint and other than his perfect 4-of-4 from beyond the arc in his first game, he was just 4-of-19. It would be nice if his jumper developed into a legitimate weapon but those numbers were part of a larger pattern of him still figuring out what to do on offense when he wasn’t holding the ball in finishing range.

About 62 percent of Williamson’s shots came with a touch time of less than two seconds, and he posted a 68.9 effective field goal percentage on those attempts. On shots that came with a touch time of longer than two seconds, his effective field goal percentage was 49.5. Those numbers aren’t that far off from what Giannis Antetokounmpo posted — 66.5 percent with a touch time of less than two seconds, 53.9 percent when the touch was longer. But more than half of Giannis’ shot attempts (64.9 percent) fell in the latter category. Zion’s strength creates a different set of advantages than Giannis’ length, but that’s a bare-bones approximation of Williamson’s ceiling and a roadmap for how to unlock it– figuring out how to dribble the ball into scoring position.

All the other pieces Zion’s skillset that weren’t entirely defined yet were roughed in, to some degree. He’s going to defend bigs far more than wings — 64.5 percent of his defensive matchups came against 4s or 5s. He wasn’t exactly a force on the defensive glass or as a rim protector but there aren’t any indicators that those skills aren’t still good developmental possibilities and he’s certainly going to be a switchable defender. Playmaking is very much a work in progress and creating for himself off the dribble is probably going to come before he’s creating for others. He can move the ball to the obvious open man or and hit cutters but he had nine turnovers to just one assist on 80 total drives.

But, again, 19 games didn’t get Williamson much time to grow these skill sets. What he did establish is he’s going to be every bit as productive and exciting as he was in college and there are plenty of All-Star appearances in his future. Exactly how that productivity will relate to the Pelicans not just winning games but bending their arc towards contention, will have to be answered next season.

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