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The Whiteboard: Does it really matter what position Zion Williamson plays?

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In a media availability yesterday, Pelicans GM David Griffin talked at length about Zion Williamson, his health and his general expectations for the upcoming season. The specific comments that caught the most attention were about Williamson playing with Steven Adams, and a pointed digression about what position Williamson would be playing in the future:

“People I think unfairly look at him as a big and being limited to being a 4 or 5. When we drafted Zion, the thing that excited us the most was the positionless nature of his game. We really very much envision a time where Zion is going to be playing the 3 and defending the 3 and he’s going to be on the handle.”

To my mind, there are two ways of reading into Griffin’s statements. The first extrapolates out from the specifics Griffin mentioned, hearing this as a vision of Williamson ultimately hewing to our more conventional ideas about what a wing should be. The second takes it at face value, recognizing the limits of our positional language to truly capture the essence of what a player does on the floor. In this reading, positions don’t really matter as much as the idea of letting Williamson explore the more wing-like aspects of his skill set.

This may seem like a pedantic distinction, but it matters.

The truth is that Zion’s ability to effectively leverage winglike skills is still largely hypothetical, on both ends of the floor. You can see it in flashes but, aside from his eye-popping debut, he was just 2-of-10 on 3-pointers in the other 23 games. He attempted just six pull-up jumpers across that time span, making only two. As perimeter ball-handler, he drove about as often per minute as Taurean Prince or Josh Okogie. He recorded just two assists to 10 turnovers off 115 total drives and shot just 42.9 percent. At the other end of the floor, Krishna Narsu’s defensive analytics estimate that Zion spent roughly two-thirds of his possessions matched up against 4s or 5s, and just over 16 percent of his possessions defending the opponent’s first or second option on offense.

What would it mean for Zion Williamson to spend more time playing like a wing?

Williamson is clearly capable of doing more on the perimeter than those stats would indicate and he may even be further along than those actually imply — he played just 24 games and his rookie season was disrupted on both ends, first by injury and second by an unprecedented pandemic scenario. But asking him to lean into those areas of his game next season has developmental consequences, regardless of what Griffin actually has in mind.

Zach LaVine is an example of a player who was asked to stretch his game early in his career with the Timberwolves, operating as a point guard and getting on-ball creation reps that have probably raised his ceiling now that he has retreated into a more constrained role. But it doesn’t always work that way. Letting Aaron Gordon try to play like Paul George has probably made him a more well-rounded player but not necessarily to his benefit. There is a strong argument to be made that Gordon might ultimately be more valuable as a more limited player, excelling at a few things instead of burning resources to be average at several more.

My favorite example of this paradox is Josh Smith, an obscenely talented player who was largely undone by a lack of constraint on his role. Masquerading as a wing instead of a transformational and versatile big brought out all his worst tendencies and undermined his best. The connection between Stan Van Gundy and Smith is a strange coincidence. Smith had already spent a full season in Detroit before Van Gundy arrived, and lasted just 28 games before being released. In those 28 games, Smith attempted considerably more jumpers than shots at the rim and played nearly a fifth of his minutes with two centers on the floor — Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe.

The parallels between Smith and Williamson are probably more curious than instructive at this point, but it’s worth considering. From the beginning of Smith’s career with the Atlanta Hawks to the point it, for all intents and purposes, fizzled out with the Pistons it’s fairly easy to track how the circumstances around him led to different developmental outcomes. In Williamson, the Pelicans have what could be a generational franchise player. They don’t have the benefit of infinite time but it’s worth taking the long view, thinking about the player they’d like him to be at his peak and make choices now that move coherently in that direction. They’ll need to adapt and change, adjust to new data points but the developmental vision should be scaffolded and it should reach well beyond just next season.

Whatever Griffin actually has in mind when he talks about playing Williamson at the 3, one hopes it’s part of a coherent larger vision, one that understands the inherent sacrifice of asking a player as talented and versatile as Williamson to play one way instead of another, and one that plans for the next steps and the steps after that.

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