NBA Star Index: Zion Williamson’s passing is putting defenders in an impossible pickle

Welcome back to the NBA Star Index — a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Reminder: Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. This column will run every week through the end of the regular season. This week we focus solely on first-time All-Star Zion Williamson.

It’s been well chronicled that the New Orleans Pelicans are using Zion Williamson more and more as an offensive initiator — a point guard, point-forward, however you want to label that job description these days. It’s been a great move for both him and the Pelicans, who, as head coach Stan Van Gundy has pointed out, have better spacing with one less non-shooter (Zion) off the ball. 

It works because Zion is a way better ball-handler than you’ve probably ever paid attention to while consuming his above-the-rim highlights. His first step is predictably explosive, but his change of direction is just as nasty. Look at this quick crossover out of a pick-and-roll switch that catches Daniel Theis off guard: 

Notice Jaylen Brown staying attached to Brandon Ingram in the short corner. This is the dilemma Zion presents. If you don’t come down off shooters to help on his drives, he’s almost impossible to stop from getting to the rim one-on-one. Here, the same thing happens: Zion gets to his left, Aaron Nesmith stays attached to Josh Hart in the corner, and it’s an easy bucket: 

Eventually, these help defenders are forced to abandon their first responsibilities to provide extra support on Zion’s drives, and that’s where this gets really fun. As Zion figures out how, and when, to kick to the shooters who are left open by these helping defenders, he’s going to shred defenses as a passer. On the deciding play of New Orleans’ win over Boston on Sunday, it was Brown leaving Ingram to cut Zion off at the elbow:

Whether he’s running pick-and-roll (where the 1.37 points per possession he’s producing as either a scorer or passer ranks in the 84th percentile league-wide, per Synergy), facing up, posting up or just isolating and getting downhill, when Zion moves even one step in the direction of the basket, groups of antsy defenders tend to flock to him, and he’s finding open shooters more and more every game as a result: 

Zion’s assist numbers aren’t going to blow you away. He’s averaging 3.2 per game, up from 2.1 last season. Over the month of February, that has risen to 4.4 per game. Overall, Williamson assists on 16.2 percent of the Pelicans’ buckets when he’s on the floor this season, up from 11.9 percent last season, and his assist ratio has grown by almost 50 percent since his rookie year. 

Also, assists are a two-way street. Teammates have to make the shot Zion creates. Looking at potential assists (shots created by Zion that were missed) is a better indicator of the growth he’s made as a passer, and that number has increased from 3.2 last season to 6.1 this season. 

Bottom line, Zion’s passes are creating 8.8 points per game this season, up from 5.0 last season, and his passing production out of pick-and-roll is night and day. Last season, Zion only ran 11 total pick-and-rolls as the initiator, and produced just 0.36 points per possession including passes, which ranked in the lowest percentile league-wide. This season, Zion has already initiated 115 pick-and-rolls, and he’s producing at a 1.12 PPP rate including passes which ranks in the 89th percentile. 

That’s a nerdy way of saying Zion is dropping legit dimes. They aren’t fancy, but they’re on time and effective. Zion is already a first-time All-Star based on his overwhelming power and ability to score the ball with incredible efficiency, but as he adds this kind of facilitating to his game, putting help defenders in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t bind, he’s going to become almost impossible to deal with offensively. 


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