Zion is becoming a very good passer, which should scare the rest of the league
LOS ANGELES — Zion Williamson stood at the free throw line Sunday when a Clippers’ fan and heckler yelled from behind the basket, “all you can do is dunk.”
Zion shrugged postgame, both at the heckler he said he didn’t hear and the concept.
“To anybody who knows basketball and watches basketball, I don’t even have to explain myself,” Zion said
Zion’s right. That fan — and anyone else echoing the old “he only dunks” trope — has not been paying attention this season.
Zion is a much-improved passer and playmaker, something that was on full display in the Pelicans’ win over the Clippers Sunday — Zion had seven assists (and could have had more, Pels shooters missed four open 3s off his passes).
He consistently found the open man when the defense collapsed to take away his assaults on the rim. He’s not just making the simple pass either, he made a couple of near skip-passes that were thinking the game a couple of moves ahead.
“It goes back to something. Coach K said to me it has always stuck with me since the Duke days: The game is so simple. It’s crazy,” Zion said. “If two people are shifting towards you, two people gotta be open. Somebody has to be open out there. And that also goes in coach [Willie] Green putting us in great spots. So when the double team does come the pass is easy.”
“I think that’s an underrated skill that he possesses,” CJ McCollum emphasized. “He talked about showing his total game this season, how we had a lot of weapons and a lot of guys who can contribute towards winning I think he is just displaying that he’s willing to do what it takes to win.”
Zion has seen multiple defenders since junior high, but the speed, length and sophistication of the doubles coming at him in the NBA take time to adjust to. On Sunday, Zion anticipated the doubles and knew where to find open shooters.
“I would say before, I think I would rush it sometimes trying to see an open pass,” Zion said. “But now I just let it develop. I let the defense kind of shift towards me and as soon as I see them take that shift, like I said, we got some special shooters on his team and I’m able to find them and they knocked shots down.”
Two things make Zion’s playmaking work. First, he remains a physical force of nature inside — he had 21 points and 12 rebounds against the Clippers. Los Angeles threw a variety of doubles at him in the post, with Ivica Zubac often as the primary defender (he had some level of success), then help coming to force Zion out of the middle. Even that attention can only do so much against the speed and strength Zion brings to the party — all 17 of his shots came within eight feet of the rim.
The other is the Pelicans have trusted shooters all over the court — the spacing is there. And when Brandon Ingram returns from concussion protocol, the Pelicans add another shot creator to the mix, allowing Zion to work more off the ball against mismatches, or just crash the glass with abandon.
Willie Green saw mismatches against the Clippers’ small ball lineups Sunday and broke out point-Zion as a counter — an adjustment that worked well and led to a number of quality shots, partly because of Zion’s vision and willingness to pass.
“The thing that we did today that I hadn’t done a lot was to just put the ball in Z’s hands at the top kind of play point guard more, a bit during the stretches in the game to try to take advantage of some of the mismatches,” Green said.
With Ingram, McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas, Trey Murphy III, Naji Marshall (who had a breakout 17 points against the Clippers), Larry Nance Jr., Devonte’ Graham, Herbert Jones and on down the line, the Pelicans have the weapons to be a top-10 offense easy.
What unlocks them to become an elite offense that is unstoppable is Zion the playmaker.
“I have said it before, he makes the right decision,” coach Green said. “Whether it’s to score for himself, find his teammates and kicking it out, setting screens, continuing to move. So he was fantastic.”
More of that Zion is what should scare the rest of the league.