The NBA has never seen a player like Zion Williamson. “This is a Shaquille O’Neal-type force of nature with a point guard skill set,” Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle told reporters recently after his team fell to Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans. Carlisle had just watched Williamson pulverize his defense by pouring in 38 points on 13-of-20 shooting. He was in awe. An NBA lifer who’s seen everything and everyone, Carlisle then tried explaining what it felt like to face Williamson. The best he could do was reach for a metaphor.
“He’s coming at you, like, it’s not just an Amtrak. It’s an Acela,” Carlisle said. “It’s the fast one that doesn’t stop. It doesn’t stop in Westport or wherever. It just goes — phew! — straight to New York City. It’s something else.”
Carlisle is not the only opposing coach left feeling helpless by Williamson. Just 20 years old, and in just his second NBA season, Williamson has already established himself as one of the game’s premier forces. His numbers (26.8 points per game, good for eighth in the NBA, and a Player Efficiency Rating of 27.9, good for fourth) are All-NBA caliber. He plays like someone with access to a fast-forward button, his combination of explosion and quickness standing out in an arena where everyone is ridiculously explosive and ridiculously quick. He makes his fellow NBA players, some of the biggest and strongest men in the world, look puny.
Which is why it’s so strange to find him at the top of the leaderboard for rejections of his own shot. It almost sounds like a paradox. It’s not exactly a feat you’d associate with a player who opposing coaches compare to Shaq.
Williamson has had his shot blocked 104 times this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Not only is that the most in the league, but it’s 33 more than the next player (Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton) on the list. Opponents have swatted 2.1 of his shots per game — the highest frequency among players with at least 41 games played since Shareef Abdur-Rahim in 1998-99. Williamson’s pace is the third-highest in the 25 seasons that the NBA has tracked this data.
Part of this is a result of the skills and mindset that make Williamson so great. “The guy goes to the basket more than anybody in the league, by far,” Pelicans head coach Stan Van Vundy said this week during a press conference over Zoom. “When you go that often, you’re going to get some shots blocked. So I guess it’s OK if you go in and shoot 10-footers because you can’t get to the rim and miss, but it’s not OK if you’re getting blocked? It’s a BS stat. Who cares.”
Van Gundy is right about the totals. The NBA has never seen a player attack the basket like Williamson. He looks for creases but can also get there through sheer force. He averages 13.5 shots at the rim — the most in the NBA’s 25-year database. He almost never settles; just 39 of his 832 shots this season have come from outside the paint.
Anyone who plays this style is going to get his shot blocked. But that it’s happening so frequently does raise some red flags. For example, of the 100 players who have attempted the most shots this season, none has had a higher share of those shots blocked than Williamson’s 12.5 percent, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Nos. 2 and 3 on the list (Elfrid Payton and Dennis Schröder) are ground-bound guards.
So why is this happening? There are a few reasons. Watch Pelicans games and you’ll routinely see Van Gundy wave his arms, stomp his feet and bark at officials following Williamson misses in traffic, making clear what he believes to be the problem.
Carlisle alluded to foul calls, too, following his loss to the Pelicans.
“It presents huge challenges for the defense and for officials,” Carlisle said. “He is just creating collisions out there.”
This is where the comparison to Shaq, famously one of the most difficult players to officiate, becomes even more appropriate. Willamson does draw an inordinate amount of fouls. He’s received whistles on 22.5 percent of his shots, according to Cleaning the Glass, one of the league’s top rates, and only Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Trae Young have taken more free throws per game. But Willamson plays like a bowling ball with a rocket pack attached. His go-to move is barreling into the paint and launching himself into multiple defenders. In other words, he’s the sort of player playing the sort of style where referees could probably blow their whistles every other play, and he’s doing all this without flopping.
“If I’m trying to look for a call, I may not get it and the other team is already inbounding the ball pushing it up the court,” Williamson said during a recent Zoom press conference. “So I was just kind of taught to just play my game and just kind of play through it.”
The other issue is that he’s playing on a team bereft of shooting. The Pelicans have hit just 35.1 percent of their 3-point looks this season, the league’s eight-worst mark. They don’t have a single player on their roster who takes at least one triple a game shooting above 39 percent on those looks. Only seven teams have taken a lower percentage of their shots from deep, according to Cleaning the Glass.
They’ve managed to put together the league’s eighth-best offense, but the lack of shooting allows opponents to pack the paint. Williamson’s conversion rate around the rim of 67 percent — one that ranks in the 44th percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass — seems much more impressive when you watch him attack the hoop with the shot clock winding down and multiple defenders stationed in his path.
“You can only do that if there’s not shooting on the floor. If you’re spreading the floor with shooters, you can’t do that stuff, you can make them pay,” Van Gundy said. “We’ve got to be better with our spacing and our ball movement. But we’ve got to make some shots, and we haven’t been making them.”
Williamson is not the first budding superstar to suffer from a lack of shooting around him. We’ve seen this happen with LeBron James in Cleveland and Miami and Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee; only once the shooters arrived were both stars able to thrive. But they also all learned early on how important it was to diversify their skills — to add weapons other than straight line-drive attacks. This is the road map Williamson and the Pelicans should follow. Williamson doesn’t need to sweat setting a record this year for having his shot blocked, but if it’s still happening three years from now, he and the Pelicans could be in trouble.
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