New Orleans Pelicans: Realistic expectations for Zion Williamson’s rookie year

Cleveland Cavaliers Zion Williamson (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images
Cleveland Cavaliers Zion Williamson (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images /

New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson comes into this season with more hype than any first-year player since a certain “King”  burst onto the scene in 2003. It’s time to differentiate the realistic strides Zion should make this season from the overblown hype we are forced to believe he will satisfy.

With the first pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, the New Orleans Pelicans surprised absolutely no one by selecting the highly touted power forward out of Duke University, Zion Williamson.

Zion was one of three Duke alumni to be selected in the top 10 of this year’s draft. It seems like ages ago his teammate R.J. Barrett was favored by many to be selected with the first pick … that is, until Zion touched the floor for the first time, taking the entire basketball world by storm and not letting it go.

Over the course of his basketball “takeover,” Zion has drawn praise from the media, fans and other players alike, being compared to greats such as LeBron James, Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and numerous others.

It’s easy to fall victim to these media traps and conveniently forget that just two short years ago Markelle Fultz was James Harden reincarnate and in 2014, Andrew Wiggins was billed as the “next LeBron James.” While Wiggins has put together a few solid seasons, and Fultz still has time to salvage his career, these lofty comparisons quickly derailed these player’s careers and they were doomed from the start.

The most important thing to remember as we begin to watch Zion’s career unfold is that he is not the next LeBron, Barkley or Griffin; he is the first Zion, and deserves the right to be treated as such.

With that out of the way, the questions that still must be answered are: What can we expect from Zion Williamson in his inaugural campaign, and where can he improve on his already stellar game?

The New Orleans Pelicans drafted Zion with the intention of building a championship-caliber team around him, and with the help of newly anointed executive vice president David Griffin at the helm, they’re off to a great start. While Zion can do most things on the basketball court, running point guard is not one of them. Enter Lonzo Ball.

Ball has not gotten off to the start many had hoped he would (again coming into the league with egregious comparisons to players such as Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson). Attribute it to health, coaching, an overly talkative father or simply unfair expectations, but with all the bad that has plagued his career early on, one thing has lived up to the billing: his passing.

Ball has tremendous court vision, arguably the best in the league and while the extent of it may be overstated by his father, he truly does make those around him better.

Zion’s scoring numbers will likely pop off the page, as will his shot percentage, and that will be in large part to Lonzo setting the table for him.

This brings us to the first improvement Zion will need to make in his ascent to superstardom, his perimeter shooting. Zion was not a bad 3-point shooter in college, but not a great one either. His below-average 33.8 percent on 2.2 attempts per game doesn’t look good, but it is encouraging for a few reasons.

The fact Zion was willing to let it fly from deep is an extremely positive sign. He shot a video game-like 68 percent from the field overall, and players like Ben Simmons who were able to get into the paint at will in college did not see the need to work on their outside shot. This stubbornness has hurt Simmons in his professional career, and would also hurt Zion if he’s as unwilling to shoot, but thankfully, he tried.

Ideally, we’ll see Williamson put up around 4.5 3s a game and sink 1.5 of them in his rookie season. Those numbers would put his percentages a little behind what he did in college, but that is to be expected and gaining confidence in this range will be key his first year.

Williamson has a solid shooting foundation, and he will need to continue to build up that foundation going forward, as scoring in the paint will not be nearly as easy against the Milwaukee Bucks as it was against a team like Wake Forest.

In addition to a gifted passer tossing him the rock, Zion will also be surrounded by a cast of competent shooters such as Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick. While Ingram’s career 3-point percentage of 32.9 is well below league-average, he has demonstrated touch from range, sinking 39 percent of his 3-point looks in the 2017-18 season.

These shooters around Zion will be essential in improving his passing. He only managed 2.1 assists per game in college, though passing was not something he was called upon to do very often. He definitely showed flashes when given the opportunity, specifically in the open court, but he has the opportunity to excel as a passer in his current situation.

Zion will still be able to use his 6’7″, 285-pound frame to muscle his way into the paint, but will be faced with much more aggressive and advanced double-teams. He is clearly the player opponents will game-plan against, and will likely see double-teams most often on his drives to the basket.

He has one of two options when confronting his fellow freaks-of-nature on the drive. He will make the decision to either:

A) Keep his head down and attack the basket with reckless abandon, or

B) Find the open shooter when the perimeter collapses in hopes of corralling him.

No one’s saying either one of these options is right or wrong; there is a time for both. Zion will just have to learn how to discern the situation and judge which is best. For instance, if a smaller guard is defending him on the drive, and another smaller guard comes in to help, we should see a SportsCenter Top-10 dunk. On the flip side, if Giannis Antetokounmpo is defending him, and a player like Brook Lopez also joins in the fun, that would be the time to find his open teammate.

There is no perfect way to predict Zion’s career or the path he will follow, and that’s the beauty of it. Zion Williamson is his own man, and when it’s all said and done he will be remembered for what he contributes on the court, not who he was compared to as an 18-year-old. Just remember when you watch him to watch HIM. He’s not chasing the ghost of any player that came before him, just their records. Watch out, he’s coming.

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Zion’s predicted 2019-20 stat line: 20.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.0 BPG