The experiment of playing Zion Williamson at point guard has been all reward and no risk for the New Orleans Pelicans. Until recently the strategy was used only sporadically but with Lonzo Ball and Nickeil Alexander-Walker unavailable for the past several games Stan Van Gundy decided to give Williamson free reign of the offense against the Philadelphia 76ers. The result was a game-changing, victory-sealing 37 points, 15 rebounds, and 8 assists from Williamson. After Williamson’s performances against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings the Pelicans should continue the experiment regardless of who is available to play. Williamson as the lead ball-handler allows him to develop his game further while leading a nearly unstoppable offense.
After the home win over Philadelphia Van Gundy admitted, “We decided going in with Lonzo out, you know we haven’t done this…We decided we were going to play (Williamson) at the point all night, at least as long as he could go. So he had the ball in his hands all the time and the ability to make plays and everything else. But I was actually more impressed with his defense and if we had shot the ball better he would have ended up with double-figure assists too. He played the game the way you are supposed to play the game. It was tremendous. He was obviously incredible tonight.”
Doc Rivers and Rick Carlisle have both recently expressed how unique Williamson is and how difficult he is as a matchup nightmare. The whole remaining teams on the schedule will see even more of Point Zion than those two title-winning coaches. Van Gundy says the plan is “to get him more experience with that stuff going forward because I think that’s where his future is in this game. I really do.” Williamson is relishing the opportunity to show what he has been working on, including that Teresa Weatherspoon-inspired pull-up jumper he displayed to keep the Pelicans rolling late in the 76ers game.
Williamson explained, “It just feels natural to me. I’ve been playing the game since I was 4. At this point, it just feels natural. I’m still learning, but certain things just feel natural…When I shot it, it felt good. I liked the result, to be honest. She tells me every game, but tonight, she was like, just give me one. I tried. And it worked.”
The 28 shots and 15 rebounds against the 76ers were both career highs for Williamson. It was the second game in a row that Williamson posted six or more assists. He has scored 30 or more points in the last three games and five of the past seven. It should also be noted Brandon Ingram has 61 points on 52% shooting in the past two games. Williamson’s season averages in all categories have increased in alignment with his usage rate at point guard, as has the team’s chances at a playoff spot. Adding to the allure of continuing this strategy, the common concerns about handling a higher usage rate apparently do not apply to Williamson.
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In the three-game sample size, Williamson is 44/71 from the field with only one three-pointer, which he missed. He sits 9th in total points scored, 4th in field goals made, and has the highest field goal percentage (62%) among the top 80 in shots attempted for the season. Nicola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the closest to Williamson in the top 50, both shooting 56% from the field. Both Jokic and Antetokounmpo are NBA MVP candidates who are in the top ten in turnovers. Williamson is 27th even with the increased ball-handling duties.
Opposing teams will test Williamson when he is asked to carry the ball the length of the court. However, Van Gundy could conclude that carrying that much of the offense is too taxing. Lonzo Ball, Kira Lewis Jr., and Nickeil Alexander-Walker will still be needed to protect possessions until the team crosses half-court. Then Williamson can be freed to comfortably initiate the offense from more threatening spots on the floor or simply burst to the rim himself.
Williamson with the ball at the top of the key keeps the ball moving as well as any other guard on the roster. He is a willing passer, just look at the very first play in Cleveland. As the defense collapses on his drive, Williamson finds the perfect pass to the corner. Should that shot not fall, Williamson is in a great position to grab a rebound or seal a defender for an entry pass. In the past three games the Pelicans are in the top ten for field goal shooting percentage, offensive rebounds, and first in total rebounds.
Furthermore, Williamson is third in attempted free throws and sixth in made one-point shots. Williamson should be rewarded with more favorable foul calls as the driving guard than the dunk spot forward looking for lobs or rolling for a potential lob pass. Williamson’s size and skill give him a near-free path to the rim against any single defender. His natural talent makes the game at even the highest levels seem easy at times. Considering the current winning streak and Williamson’s chemistry building with Ingram, the New Orleans Pelicans should continue with the Point Zion experiment for the rest of the season. It is the best move to maximize their playoff chances and evaluate the roster surrounding the foundational stars of the franchise.