Zion Williamson is a once-in-a-generation athlete who already understands how to leverage that gift

As an NBA return to action appears all but inevitable, the focus has shifted to what that return will look like. Commissioner Adam Silver held a call with all 30 league general managers on Thursday, and it was reported on Friday by The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor that “about 75 percent” of GMs were in favor of a play-in tournament. 

This is good news for Zion Williamson fans. 

Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are currently the 10th seed in the Western Conference, three games back in the loss column of the No. 8 Grizzlies. A play-in tournament for the final seed in each conference would give them a chance to crack the postseason. If the league decides to retain the traditional conference format, and the Pelicans were able to advance past the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis, that would mean a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James vs. Zion Williamson? Yes, please. 

However the formatting shakes out, getting a chance to watch Williamson play big-stage, high-stakes NBA basketball will be a treat. His rookie season, albeit limited to just 19 games so far, has been a nightly indictment on anyone who questioned whether his near mythical athletic gifts would automatically, or immediately, translate to NBA success. 

I was one of those questioners. I talked to scouts who believed the Zion hype outsized the reality of his flaws. I drew my own conclusions about his inability to shoot and inexperience with competing as something less than the best athlete on the floor. Turns out, he’s still the best athlete on the court, most nights by an appreciable margin. At 19 years old, he’s already too strong for grown men

This pure physical superiority would make him a future All-Star on its own. But the difference between an All-Star and a superstar lies largely in the details, and to me, one of the reasons Zion is clearly on the latter trajectory is he’s more than just a great athlete. I’m not sure if he even realizes what he’s doing with just 19 NBA games under his belt, or if he’s just blessed with that feel for the game that’s so difficult to articulate but obvious to the sight. Either way, the way Zion leverages his physicality, the groundwork he lays in the split-second moments that precede many of his highlights, is arguably as important as the finishing power itself. This is wily veteran stuff, from a teenager. 

Take the following clip, for example. Everyone knows Zion loves to spin back to his left, but rather than going straight downhill on the catch, he takes the time to space his defender out to the right, get him on his hip, so that when he comes back to the middle, he’s doing so in space rather than a bull in a china shop looking to plow through a wall. 

Here again, Zion catches on the right elbow. LeBron James is the helper on the left elbow. If Zion goes right away, LeBron digs down and there’s congestion on the drive. Instead, Zion waits, and the instant LeBron takes one little step away from the lane, he goes. 

Again, that looks like a really fast, powerful guy simple blowing by his man and finishing through a helping shot-blocker at the rim, and it is all that. It’s not good enough to read the defense and not have the power or athleticism to finish the play. But Williamson showing he has the ability to do both is what makes him such a force. 

Now let’s look at a Zion post-up, where he ranks in the 71st percentile as a scorer, per Synergy, and even that number — for the small sample size — doesn’t do justice to just how punishing Williamson is when he catches the ball deep. As a defender, if you let him get the ball all the way down on the block, all you can do is hope he misses a chippy. He’s just too strong. 

So the whole game is played before he catches the ball. Keeping him off his spot. Kevin Love knows this, and so does Zion, so rather than just sprint straight to where he wants to go, he spaces out for a split second, just enough time to get Love to turn his head, at which point he immediately cuts underneath him for a deep catch and finish. 

On this particular play, Zion spacing out along the baseline makes sense. Jrue Holiday has the ball at the top, and if Zion clears, the lane is wide open for penetration. Had Zion just held his ground in the dunker spot, that would’ve been fine. Holiday could’ve driven and Love would’ve had to decide between helping and staying attached to Zion, who would’ve been in position for a lob. Which is to say, his cutting underneath Love for a deep post is an instinctual, improvisational maneuver. He saw/felt it ahead of time, slow played it just enough, and then attacked. 

You hear about guys who have basketball instincts. This is what that looks like. Williamson is a once-in-a-generation athlete, but if that’s all he was, if he didn’t already have this subtle feel for the game and instead just tried to run and jump over everyone, NBA players could adjust. 

It’s like a pitcher who throws 100 mph in the big leagues. If that’s all he does, the best hitters in the world can still hurt him. But if he sets you up with his placement, his sequencing, if he plays the chess game on top of having all that power, then he becomes truly dominant. And that is exactly what we’re all watching Zion become. 

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