25-under-25, New Orleans Pelicans

25-under-25: Zion Williamson at No. 10

Zion Williamson comes in at No. 10 on our list, but with his potential and skill set, his ceiling is limitless. If he stays healthy while diversifying his game, he could rise even higher.

As far as hype and anticipation go in watching someone play basketball, Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans is at the top of the list. From blocks that disappear into the far reaches of the stands to soaring rebounds and put-back dunks that shake the arena, Zion proved to be worth the wait. It’s very likely he will be one of the most-watched and popular players going into the post-LeBron future of the NBA.

With his infectious smile, humble nature and unabashed joy in just playing the game; Zion Williamson may be built like a Space Jam Monstar, but he has morphed into the uber-loveable NBA teddy bear and marketer’s dream that many thought he would. But the NBA isn’t a popularity contest, mostly, and there has to be talent and promise to justify the expectations and opportunities.

Zion Williamson doesn’t lack in those departments either as he combines his unique body-type with incredible speed and athleticism to out-quick or overpower individual defenders or strike before double teams have a chance to set-up. He uses his outstanding vertical leaping with an explosive second and third jump that makes him a menace on the block and boards, and he employed all these tools to reach historic levels for a post player and rookie.

What does Zion Williamson need to do to take his game to the next level?

Since the institution of the shot clock in 1955, Zion Williamson is second to only Wilt Chamberlin in scoring per minutes played and led the league in points in the restricted area with 15.7 per game. He was so effective down low that his 21.5 points in the paint per 36 minutes is the best ever rate in the quarter-century the stat has been tracked. Although his sample size is small, the intimidating post-players that have come and gone during these time periods, including Shaquille O’Neal in this most recent one, show how lethal he can be close to the basket despite everyone knowing what he’s going to do and being the most blocked player per 36 minutes last season.

Even Zion Williamson’s long-awaited debut was memorable with his fourth-quarter explosion that resulted in 17 points over a 3:08 stretch which had everyone mesmerized and, most importantly, got the New Orleans Pelicans back into the game. He went 4-of-4 from 3 in that magical period of time and only 2-for-10 the rest of the season. As much as he and the Pelicans may want him to get out of the paint for his continued health, the first 24 games of his career have seen him as one of the most devastating players from that area in the history of the league.

There have been some interesting comments from New Orleans Pelicans VP David Griffin about Zion playing more small forward and seeing the “real Zion Williamson” now that he’s gotten the chance to get healthy. He was a point guard as a freshman in high school, played frequently on the wing and with the ball in his hands at Duke and has shown himself a very capable passer and initiator off the break during his limited time in the NBA.

Even with his post dominance and intimidating physical presence, Zion Williamson admitted to not showing his full capabilities because he didn’t want to “mess up” as the rookie and be somewhat deferential to more established players. The New Orleans Pelicans also didn’t have a scoring threat down low so it was an easy role for Zion to slide into. Going forward, it will interesting to see how he asserts himself with the Pelicans after an off-season whirlwind of activity. It’s not hard to imagine the advantages Zion Williamson could have on the wing, although this would bring new concerns for him and his game.

Zion has a low release and no real lift on his jump shots, it often looks more like a push shot. On the perimeter, Zion Williamson will have to show the ability to knock down some 3s to prevent defenders from sagging off and waiting for him to attack the rim. He has shown he can be successful without range on offense, but the New Orleans Pelicans have a noted shooting coach in Fred Vinson who has been credited with helping Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball overhaul their shooting strokes with dramatic results.

This would also help him at the free-throw line where he only shot 64 percent despite getting there 7.5 times a game with the sixth-highest free throw rate in the league. Zion Williamson seems poised to be a heavily-fouled player throughout his career so it is vital that he shoot better from the stripe to make teams pay for being physical with him. He also needs to work on his handles, specifically going right, which would make it harder for defenses to dictate the spots on the floor they want to send him to which has already proven a difficult task.

Ultimately, it will all come down to the most talked-about caveat when discussing him already:  his health and conditioning. No one has ever played with his body-type and skillset so the concerns about how his explosive game will wear over time have some validity to them. That seems to be the driving factor in how the New Orleans Pelicans are dealing with him whether he likes it or not. Their need for a healthy Zion Williamson is steering all their decisions about his future and the impetus behind talk of his move into different roles with the team.

If Zion Williamson can stay on the floor and playing basketball, there’s no telling what he may be able to do. He has the highest ceiling of anyone on this list because he has physical and athletic gifts that no one else does and they can allow him to dominate on both ends of the floor. It’s all NBA fans’ hope Zion Williamson gets to show us those talents season after season for years to come.

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