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What We Can Learn From Zion Williamson’s Preseason Debut

After 518 days, Zion Williamson played basketball for the New Orleans Pelicans again on Tuesday night, enticing in a preseason opening win against the Chicago Bulls. On the surface level, it was awesome simply to see Williamson back on the court, healthy and in shape.

We’ve seen the pictures and read the quotes since media day, but to see his explosiveness again in a live game scenario is an instantaneous reminder of his mesmerizing and powerful talents. His second jump remains immaculate.

The short area quickness and ground coverage he possesses were on full display throughout the game. As phenomenal as he was during 2020-21 season, there were moments in which his lateral quickness and his ability to play in space were pretty dicey. He seemed to have less of that pop on rotations that made him such an intriguing otherworldly prospect; his defensive potential coming out of Duke wasn’t the main selling point, but it’s seemingly been lost in the ether that he wasn’t supposed to be a poor defender coming into the league.

Tuesday night showed some of the most consistent, engaged, and positive defense we’ve seen from Williamson in his NBA career. While noting that we need to be careful with preseason takeaways, I’d argue these hold more merit considering how long it’s been since Williamson last played. It’s still important to take preseason minutes with a grain of salt, but the actual play was greatly encouraging.

He was zoning up on the back-end, splitting the difference between the corner and the slot; a vital part of New Orleans’ defense considering how much they rely on backline rotations to help the helper against ball screen actions. He didn’t get backcut, had a few nice recovery plays including a steal knifing into a passing lane, and his communication and overall awareness and engagement stood out. He’s not on track for All-Defense, but the player we saw looked like a positive scheme defender capable of making some chaos plays few in basketball can. That’s a gigantic improvement compared to who Williamson has been in the NBA.

This play was a decent representation of his on-ball defense.

He’s a little late in tracking Patrick Williams, but this is probably a blow by in 2021 rather than working to get back in front, riding out the drive, funneling to the rim protection, and ultimately contesting a shot. It’s bend but don’t break defense. It can be better and needs to be better in time, but Zion Williamson’s defensive backbone wasn’t built in a day.

One thing that is worth monitoring throughout the season is how the team handles screening actions with Williamson. After struggling to generate good offense early in the first half, Chicago started to throw in some back screens and pin-ins on Williamson, who keeps Caruso in front coming off the curl. Caruso pulls for a jumper, which is fine enough process, but there’s room to be active and aggressive in handling this screen.

On the second play, Williamson roams low and then calls out a switch when Caruso feigns a screen for Williams before executing a 45 cut. This puts Jose Alvarado on Williams, who flows into a pick and roll. CJ McCollum’s nail stunt stops the action. This works in the setting — Alvarado is a heady defender in spite of his small stature — and the scheme works. It’ll be interesting to see how opposing offenses look to prod some of those switches given that some mismatches can redefine how the court can be utilized by an offense given personnel.

On the final play, there’s two straight screens with Williamson switching. The ball stays in front and Caruso misses wide with a floater. Again, I like the process. There’s room for better positioning and some more aggression from Williamson in attacking screens, squeezing some of the space, and using his arms actively, but this is quality stuff that we’ve seen the Pelicans utilize last season.

I’m interested to see how the staff continues to toy with their ball screen coverages. They have a ton of length and activity on the wings that can let you get away with more aggression and funneling. Do they maybe look to throw in blitzes and situational pressure if Williamson can add some more defensive balance?

While there are plenty of questions on the defensive side of the ball, Williamson offensive utilization has me giddy. I just need to gush about how talented Zion Williamson is real quick: Even without the ball, he’s so good at being assertive and finding ways to impact the offense. He’s phenomenal on the glass and with duck-ins or quick cuts to rim run. He sets impromptu screens to free up the corner or slot. He attacks guards with seals and post-ups.

Williamson really challenges what “spacing” is and how it can be over-idealized with 5-out play. While he is not a steady shooter, his constant activity contributes to good offensive flow and continuity. That’s his impact without even touching the ball.

And then, there’s what he is capable of doing when he touches the ball.

His dynamism as a handler, roller, scorer, and playmaker all in one is not something even close to common in basketball at any level. It’s easy to forget just how dynamic he is when you haven’t seen him play live in so long. Watching him slot back in reminds me of how much he makes the guys around him make sense. While Brandon Ingram and McCollum can dent a defense and create advantages, Williamson creates them at a rate neither can replicate. The margins for error are a little bit larger when your focal point can draw three players in the paint.

This is a defensive breakdown to be certain, but it happens because Williamson pushes off a miss, catches the defense on their heels, and there are 3.5 defenders glued to him with their eyes. Should Naji Marshall shoot the three? Probably, but he attacks that gap incredibly quickly, the defense is still reacting, and he hits Jonas Valanciunas with the dump off for an easy basket. It’s Marshall’s assist, but Williamson’s gravity reverberates through the box score.

Set wise, Willie Green is letting the chopper sing! They opened with Williamson in the corner quite a few times and coming off of staggered screens into his own ball screen. He missed his first drive to the rim, but drew a few fouls after getting skinny as the game went on. Even when stifled, he’s so explosive that it’s hard to not foul him. Force a miss, and he has a pretty great chance to get it for a put back himself or kick it back out thanks to that aforementioned second jump ability.

He got opportunities as a hand-off operator, as a post-hub, and generated great looks in transition simply by running the floor without the ball. He was used a ton rolling or cutting to the rim as initial actions in sets to grab defensive attention. It felt like every action he could’ve been involved in, there was some sort of look thrown his way to test it out. It was a smattering of what may come in a dynamic offense that should power this team.

All that came in less than 16 minutes of play. We’re en route for an exciting NBA season, and Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans are a budding reason for that excitement.