Metu, the seldom-used Sacramento Kings big man, found himself on the wrong end of a Zion Williamson dunk Sunday that ranked among the best slams of the young NBA season. Williamson juked Metu on the right baseline, exploded to his left and used two dribbles to collect himself before finishing a left-handed poster that brought the New Orleans Pelicans’ bench to its feet. That Metu knocked Williamson on his head during the follow-through didn’t bother the 2019 No. 1 draft pick, who torched the Kings for 31 points on 13-for-15 shooting to help the Pelicans snap a five-game skid.
The highlight dunk and efficient scoring night were reminders that Williamson can still soar, even though he and the underwhelming Pelicans have flown under the radar to start the season. New Orleans (5-7) was bound to need some time to get its bearings with a new coach in Stan Van Gundy and an overhauled roster that includes multiple new starters and a host of developing young players. After a hyped rookie season and a flat showing in the bubble, Williamson has shown some promising signs and some causes for concern early in his second season.
The good news is that Metu is hardly the only player struggling to keep Williamson, 20, from attacking the basket. With knee surgery now more than a year behind him and his conditioning in a better place than it was last summer, Williamson is back rocketing to the hoop off the dribble, pounding the offensive glass and diving hard to finish pick and rolls. A whopping 72 percent of Williamson’s shots have come from within three feet, and more than 96 percent have come from within 10 feet. While defenders with length sometimes limit his effectiveness, Williamson has strong scoring instincts and has averaged 22.6 points by regularly dominating the paint.
While Williamson deserves credit for sticking to what he does well, he will need to fill out his offensive game if he is going to become a transcendent star. Right now, he rarely looks to shoot from the midrange, let alone from the three-point line. When he does get the ball on the perimeter, he is almost always in attack mode. His turnovers far outpace his assists, reflecting the need to improve his ballhandling, vision and body control. The Pelicans’ youth and below-average three-point shooting have exacerbated some of these shortcomings.
“Still learning with execution that if a player is going to a certain spot, we’ve all got to figure out what to do [with our] spacing,” Williamson said after a recent loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “Sometimes if somebody is driving, we have three people cutting and nobody to kick it out to. It’s small things like that we’ve got to fix.”
Van Gundy has gone all-in on bully ball, pairing Williamson with Steven Adams, a traditional center, to give New Orleans perhaps the burliest frontcourt in the league. This tandem requires some compromises. The Pelicans rank in the top five when it comes to scoring from within five feet, and they give up the third-fewest baskets in the restricted area. However, they rank 26th in three-point percentage on offense and concede the most three-pointers in the NBA on defense.
Williamson is part of the problem when it comes to the Pelicans’ three-point defense. While he has excellent burst and leaping ability on offense, he can be slow moving laterally and late to close out on shooters. He ranks among the Pelicans’ leaders in hustle stats such as deflections and loose balls recovered, but his limited perimeter mobility on defense can be exploited by opposing stretch forwards. Through Sunday, New Orleans was being outscored when Williamson was in the game — a reversal from last season, when he ranked 17th in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus, which measures a player’s on-court impact.
Van Gundy said Saturday that he met with Williamson and Brandon Ingram, an all-star last season, to discuss the NBA’s top duos, including LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Lakers, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks.
“What do they have in common? They’re all guys that play both ends of the floor,” Van Gundy said. “They’re two-way guys. My challenge is to create a better offensive framework and spacing for [Williamson and Ingram]. Their challenge is to take the responsibility defensively, that they step forward and become better defenders and part of the solution at that end of the floor.”
New Orleans ranks in the top five in rebounding thanks to its large front line, and Van Gundy hopes that Williamson can turn that strength into another reliable source of offense by bringing the ball up the court when he claims defensive rebounds.
“I do feel more comfortable with it,” Williamson said. “Coach has been getting on me about it. He feels like that’s another way I can apply myself on the offensive end. Whenever I get the rebound, I’m going to push it.”
A similar strategy helped unlock Blake Griffin and Antetokounmpo as they sought to develop their offensive games beyond dunks early in their careers. As Griffin progressed through his 20s, he proved to be an adept passer, a reliable midrange shooter and, eventually, a three-point threat. Antetokounmpo has struggled to expand his shooting range, but he has helmed a drive-and-kick offense that has consistently ranked among the NBA’s most efficient.
Williamson’s long-term trajectory will be determined, in part, by Van Gundy’s ability to make his star forward less predictable when he has the ball and to expand his scoring game beyond post touches and pick-and-roll finishing.
“We’re trying to create more situations for him, [such as] having the ball on the perimeter and being able to attack,” Van Gundy said. “Whether he’s handling on pick and rolls or getting opportunities to drive the ball and shoot the ball, that’s going to take some time — not only for him, but for our team. We have to develop some of those things. This guy is one of the most unique talents that I’ve seen in the league. Trying to create a package for him is challenging yet fun at the same time.”