Zion Williamson Emerging As NBA’s Ultimate Matchup Nightmare

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans, NBA Trade Rumors
NBA Analysis Network

The New Orleans Pelicans have experienced some major highs during the short periods that Zion Williamson has been available to play throughout his three NBA seasons. Now that he’s healthy ahead of their 2022-23 campaign, it’s all coming together quite nicely with an 18-8 start to the season.

After missing all of last season due to a foot injury, Williamson has produced at a high level after returning to the lineup. In 21 appearances, he’s averaged 25.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists while shooting 60.9 percent from the floor.

“It’s been a lot of fun to watch,” Pelicans guard CJ McCollum said of Williamson. “He’s doing probably what we all expected from him, but he makes it look easy. Gets to the paint, dunks, flexes, spins, he’s kind of showing everything, hitting threes, hitting jumpers, defensively, blocking shots. He’s playing how only he can play, to be honest with you.

McCollum continued: “I don’t know who else can do the things he does out there. He’s reaching his potential, which is really important for him and our team and our growth, for him to be the best version of himself and get the most out of his talent. He’s doing that, and the work is showing.”

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As of late, Williamson has reached a gear or two higher, averaging 31.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists while converting on 68.0 percent of his shot attempts over his last six performances. He’s coming off a pair of season-high 35-point performances against the Phoenix Suns.

“We’re No. 1 in the West right now,” Williamson said. “I know to a lot of people that’s not a big deal, because it’s early in the season, but for us to have that ranking right now, it’s big. We not only want to hold onto it, we want to build on it. We have a deep team, and we all have a special bond, so everybody is happy to see each other do well.”

The first of the two matchups against the Suns ended with the New Orleans Pelicans winning 128-117. The headlines focused on Williamson pulling off a 360-windmill dunk that occurred meaningless, garbage-time situation. Still, regardless, it sent a message to the team that defeated them in the first round of the playoffs: “The Pelicans are here, and Zion is, too.”

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“That was a little out of character for me,” Williamson said. “But you’ve got to understand, I mean, you can understand it or not. They sent my teammates home last year.

Williamson continued: “I missed all last year. I got carried away a little bit. I admit that. But you know, I was in that locker room when my brothers were down because the Suns sent us home last year. That’s a tough moment to be a part of. So in that moment, I got carried away. I admit that. … If they were to do the same thing, I wouldn’t have no problem with it.”

The Pelicans and Suns faced off again on Sunday. After a full game to reference for adjustments, Phoenix allowed Williamson to score 35 points again, leading New Orleans to a 129-124 overtime victory. It didn’t prove to be a challenge either, as he did so while shooting 14-21 from the floor and 2-3 from 3-point range.

“That’s big for us,” Williamson said of defeating the Suns twice “The Suns, they’ve earned their resume. They’re a great team. So for us to get two back-to-back wins against them, it’s big for our confidence.”

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Right now, Williamson is playing at his best, and it’s translating to wins even while the Pelicans are without Ingram in the lineup. Opposing teams must account for one of the game-wrecking matchup nightmares in the league when they face New Orleans — creating the foundation for one of the NBA’s few teams with genuinely elite potential. How are the Pelicans making the most of it?

Zion Williamson, The Ultimate Matchup Nightmare

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans, NBA News
NBA Analysis Network

When thinking of the NBA’s most dominant paint scorers, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic are naturally high on the list. Despite being a guard, Ja Morant (16.7 PITP) led all paint scorers in 2021-22, so he’s also on the shortlist. However, Zion Williamson has to be mentioned before all of these names when remembering the full extent of what he’s shown.

During the 2021-22 season, Williamson averaged 19.5 points in the paint, which trailed only three seasons from Shaquille O’Neal for the most ever in a single season since 2000. Williamson and O’Neal are the only players to surpass 17.5 points in the paint per game within a single season during this stretch of NBA history.

The physical tools that Williamson possesses enable him to have an almost unmatched ability to challenge a help defender deep on the drive. It can be a big that was in the paint for the duration of the play, and he can use his strength to finish through, his explosion to challenge vertically, and his incredible balance and all-around eye-hand coordination to execute the finish — on the way down even if needed.

With the sheer force that Williamson plays with on his drives, there just isn’t anything that a defender can do to counter without fouling or hoping. For the Pelicans, the priority becomes maximizing the volume of situations that feature Williamson attacking the rim with momentum, whether it’s as a play finisher or as an initiator.

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Early offense can be as simple as letting “Point Zion” drive down the middle of the floor or get into a quick handoff to force a switch that he also attacks with an aggressive drive. The initial matchup has to be intentional, or it will be exploited. It’s an important reason why he’s driving the lane 19.0 times per game over his last eight games — up from 11.1 drives per game in his 13 prior performances.

There are a few handoffs that stand out as illustrating the incredible challenge that comes with having to solve for containing Williamson. Perhaps none more than when he made the Los Angeles Lakers pay for leaving him unguarded on the 3-point line and still finishing over Anthony Davis in the paint, who many consider as having an elite season as a paint protector and overall talent.

Another prime display of Williamson’s special talents came against a tough Memphis Grizzlies defense. He used an in-and-out dribble to break down Brandon Clarke out in space before gliding through the paint to finish over the top with Jaren Jackson Jr., who is an elite shot blocker, attempting to block the scoop finish on the trail.

Williamson is a matchup nightmare for all intents and purposes, forcing the opposing team to make tough choices with matchups. The personnel around the center position has gotten quite small to the point that some teams are deploying a thin, 6-foot-7 wing at the four spot. If you have to account for Jonas Valanciunas at the five with Williamson alongside him, the center will be doing a lot of work.

The Phoenix Suns served as a great example of the modern struggles of determining matchups to deploy against Williamson. Whether it was elite defensive wing Mikal Bridges or Deandre Ayton as the primary matchup, there were major struggles with containing Williamson. His frame and strength were too much for Bridges. Meanwhile, Ayton couldn’t stay in front of him out in space when they turned to that option.

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It’s too easy for Williamson when he gets the ball in the middle of the floor, and no help is sent to load up on his drive. Like most wing defenders in the NBA, Bridges will get bullied by Williamson. The options for a defense become very limited when there is already a need to hide guards and deny switches throughout the game. When the wing stopper that can handle most assignments has little hope of getting it done, it becomes a major problem.

Given that Bridges is a thin-framed wing, he’s not among the first names that come to mind when constructing a hypothetical ranking of the best possible wing defenders to deploy on Williamson as an assignment. It’s not just Williamson that he’s limited in containing. Luka Doncic was able to crash Bridges into ball screens and use his size often with the little issue in the 2022 Western Conference Semifinals.

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What about a wing defender like Aaron Gordon? He’s quick laterally and has a bigger frame to absorb contact. Williamson didn’t seem to have any problems getting deep on a drive to make a play. Even when Gordon was in a reasonable guarding position with contact in front of Williamson, the craftiness that Williamson has to play off two-feet ended in a good finish.

There are few players in the NBA stronger than OG Anunoby. Even he has trouble avoiding foul trouble when attempting to track Williamson on a drive down the middle of the floor. Keep in mind, this is occurring even with these defenders actively being unconcerned with the threat of a possible pull-up from beyond the arc.

Jabari Smith Jr., considered one of the most versatile switch defenders in the NBA, has a lot of length and quickness to try to contain Williamson. Smith sagged off Williamson to maintain the ability to wall him up deep on the drive. The result: Williamson used a shifty right-to-left crossover to create a dunk. Even with a big in the dunker’s spot, there was no hope to impact the finish attempt once Williamson launched for the dunk.

There wasn’t much that LeBron James could do about it, either. With Anthony Davis sidelined for the matchup, James often served as a small ball center option — placing him at the top of the responsibility of containing Williamson. Avoiding foul trouble was key, but Williamson’s pressure on his drives was clear. Again, he can finish through anyone’s chest at the rim if you allow him to get momentum on the attack.

Ben Simmons didn’t stand a chance in trying to contain Williamson without an assertive help rotation, either. Simmons started near the elbow, knowing a drive is coming. Williamson’s shiftiness was enough to get him at the top of the charge circle, with his quick ability to elevate and lower the shoulder completes the play.

Even when the opposition decides to double-team Williamson, it’s proving challenging to cut him off on the baseline attack. He’s so quick to get to where he needs to go, the defender will simply get beaten to the spot if the double-team is approached like a traditional situation. It’s common to see the two defenders confused as to how the other didn’t do their job after allowing a layup.

When going down the line of players with a different combination of size, length, strength, and athleticism that haven’t stood a chance to contain Williamson, it’s abundantly clear that he’s reached that rare, illustrious group of unguardable players that any franchise should cherish the chance to build around as a long-term centerpiece.

So You Want To Guard Zion Williamson With A Center?

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NBA Analysis Network

Similar to what happens with Giannis Antetokopounmpo, the strategy naturally shifts from deploying a wing as the primary defender to having a center like Ayton try to contain him. In general, when there’s space for Zion Williamson to use his explosiveness, he will make a center pay and finish through him or draw a foul in the process.

The Suns are a great example of the challenges teams face when trying to contain Williamson. They tried deploying Ayton as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo in their recent NBA Finals matchup. On the initial two possessions that Williamson tried to attack Ayton to begin a game, the Suns proved to be successful.

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In the middle of the floor, the goal for Phoenix is to have Bridges stunt at the nail when Williamson tries to drive going left. By having size with some foot speed at the point of attack to force a more rounded drive, the stunt could perhaps result in outright prying the ball loose or killing of the dribble. Early on, Williamson had a turnover in a situation of this kind.

The strategy can get a stop when Williamson is getting the ball from an awkward spot on the floor with a big hanging out in the weak-side dunker’s spot. When Williamson attacked out of the corner, getting to a left-hand finish wasn’t a great option. Continuing to develop short-range counters would be an ideal approach, or else the risk is getting caught without a great place to pass.

Ayton got a few stops when Williamson was attacking without gaining much momentum early in the play. Covering the necessary ground to pressure the finish at the rim isn’t as challenging when this occurs, and Ayton got it done on a few plays. The angle can be challenging for the finish, whether a challenged reverse layup or falling away from the basket. However, the rest of the unit better be getting a body on the center, or else a putback is likely to occur.

Just as any great player tends to do, Williamson adjusted to how the Suns were playing him. Instead of forcing a tough finish at an unfavorable angle, Williamson passed out of the drive to get it back. He got into a short-range turnaround — the type previously mentioned as ideal to continue to work on integrating in his game as a relief option.

Williamson was aggressive in attacking Ayton when he had space to comfortably operate while being more cognizant of the angles he was taking. His approach was patient and improved as his attacks continued. One play stood out when he passed out and got it back — drawing Ayton closer on the catch to setup a blow-by chance. Even with the low-man pressuring the finish, Williamson’s ability to complete acrobatic layups ended in a made finish.

Another intriguing adjustment Williamson made in his approach was to attack Ayton from further off the 3-point line when operating in the middle of the floor. While that transpired, the New Orleans Pelicans neutralized the weak-side help defense with a corner pin-in screen and general activity. Ayton can’t contain Williamson, so it becomes essential to prevent the defense from being able to wall up.

Early in the shot clock, it was a tremendous strategy for the Pelicans to set a ball screen for Williamson when Ayton was the primary defender. Think about it: If Ayton is being sealed off from effectively being able to chase Williamson, who is in a position to pressure the finish in the paint? Nobody. The rim protector gets neutralized and the results are likely to be favorable for New Orleans.

There is a game within the game element that naturally develops, especially when two teams are playing a mini-series against each other. An intriguing play that stood out occurred with “Point Zion” initiating a “Horns” set. McCollum received a flare screen — creating a clean situation for Williamson to receive a ball screen against drop coverage going to his left.

Among the more intriguing strategies from the Pelicans has been the use of a guard setting the screen when Williamson is guarded by the center, like Jose Alverado. Doing so obstructs the on-ball defender the opposition feels most confident in deploying against Williamson from keeping up with him on the explosion to the rim. Meanwhile, more likely than not, the smallest defender gets brought into the action without the chance to make an impact.

Another creative wrinkle of half-court offense by the Pelicans involved Naji Marshall coming up to screen for Williamson out of the strong-side corner. Marshall screens his own man while Williamson explodes baseline to get to the rim. There’s a lot of pressure on the defense to communicate quickly and make the switch or have help rotate from the dunker’s spot with a real risk of a dropoff pass leading to a dunk.

There are so many ways to counter a defense that tasks its center with guarding a player who spends some time initiating the offense. A defense rarely feels that it’s necessary to put their rim protector in such a position, but that’s derived from being in survival mode and is a true testament to the challenges that derive from playing against a unique talent like Williamson.

Pelicans Weaponizing Zion Williamson With Half-Court Creativity

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In addition to simply clearing out at the start of a play or using a soft switch on a ball screen to draw a mismatch, the New Orleans Pelicans have shown real creativity in creating advantages for Zion Williamson within the context of their scheme. For example, run a simple “Horns” set to get some switching going and to pre-occupy the help defense, and Williamson will take full advantage of exploding to the rim.

With the amount of switching that transpires during a typical offensive possession where a set is used, there’s a heavy burden placed on the unit as a whole when there’s a player who poses such a challenge as a matchup that avoiding simpler switches is required. It’s even more complex when the ball is given to a physically dominated player like Williamson near the nail as a decoy action develops simultaneously.

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With his top preference being to finish on that left side of the rim, there’ll often be a lot of stress on the defense to help from the strong side corner — risking possibly giving up a wide-open 3-pointer. If he gets forced right, he can glide through the defense in the air to still get the finish.

The name of the game with Williamson is to get him the ball with momentum going toward the paint without having to face a defense in position to help. One way to accomplish that is to use off-ball actions like “Miami” and force the defense to pick their poison when switching. Against teams that want to deploy their center as a primary defender against Williamson, it gets ugly fast when they are put in this type of action.

Another common dribble handoff action the Pelicans have deployed at times has been the use of “Chicago” action, with a common tendency to use it after an inbounds pass. On these plays, an off-ball screen gets set for Williamson before he receives the handoff. This puts pressure on the defense to handle switching before the handoff even develops

When Williamson is initiating the offense, one intriguing option for the Pelicans is to deploy “Stack” pick-and-roll — where a shooting threat sets a back-screen on the big defender or flares out to confuse the overall defense. With valuable gaining positioning early to handle Williamson deep on a drive, it’s a major challenge to have to account for another player brought into the action.

A noticeable theme for a successful half-court offense involving Williamson is to get him the ball on the left side of the floor with the weak-side defense neutralized. One of the many methods the Pelicans have utilized at times has been an “Iverson” cut. Here, Williamson setup a spin going to his left by burying Jaden Ivey with an aggressive drive right to set it up.

When the New Orleans Pelicans are at full strength, there will be quite a few threats on the floor with gravity. One way to use them is to deploy Williamson in the two-man game with Ingram. Against the Nets, Williamson denied the handoff on a “Get” action with Ingram. The Brooklyn Nets’ defense was focused on staying attached to Ingram while Williamson turns up court to get to the rim with an open lane.

Whether the defense is using a more traditional matchup against Williamson or is attempting to guard early with a center, involving him in half-court actions confuses. It’s almost like a cheat code knowing the opposition doesn’t want to get the small guard switched onto him — affording the use of decoy actions and resulting in easier predictions for switching predictions when attacking. These advantages become crucial in the context of a playoff series.

Zion Williamson’s Continued 3-Point Shooting Growth

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Teams facing off in a mini-series in the regular season tend to bring adjustments after the first game. The Suns naturally would prioritize trying to keep Zion Williamson out of the paint more than they did in the initial matchup. One of the methods of doing so is to dare him to shoot from 3-point range. He made Phoenix pay for doing so by going 2-3 from beyond the arc on Sunday.

“I see the work that he puts in behind the scenes,” McCollum said of Williamson’s 3-point shooting. “I’m like Z, ‘you’ve got to shoot that jumper.” And tonight, he shot a couple. I think he went 2 for 3 from three. He had a chance to win it with a pull-up, and he hit another pull-up earlier in the game.

McCollum continued: “His greatness is what it is, right, but for him to take that next step, especially when the playoffs start and to keep the defense honest — and he’s got nice form — keep them honest and shoot a few jumpers. He’s doing everything he’s supposed to. I’m proud of him.”

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The first of Williamson’s makes from deep against the Suns resulted from a transition trailer play. Ayton was focused on guarding the initial action and was at the nail by the time Williamson caught the ball in the slot on the trail, but he closed out significantly short on him — daring him to shoot.

On another play, with Larry Nance Jr. posting up, Williamson filled the strong-side slot to make himself available for a pass. Ayton continued to dare Williamson to shoot by sagging off him on the 3-point line, and Williamson made him pay for it by being aggressive in taking the open look.

Being more aggressive in taking 3-pointers will be among the next steps in Williamson’s ongoing development. Before Sunday’s game, he hadn’t made a 3-pointer since Nov. 10, when he went 1-1 against the Portland Trail Blazers. He’s only recorded a made 3-pointer in three overall performances.

If the New Orleans Pelicans do start getting more aggressive with using actions to get the ball to Williamson, it will only help if he continues to knock down 3-pointers at a strong clip. In the play below, the Indiana Pacers opted to leave him on the perimeter, with Myles Turner favoring paint protection — giving Williamson a prime opportunity to raise and shoot. He knocked it down.

Williamson will never command greater fear from defenders using the threat of a jump shot over the drive, but regardless, drawing more respect would make the drive that much easier. If someone like Ayton has to play a few steps closer, it’s much more challenging to contain him out in space — creating a possible passing chance if a help rotation is made.

About Grant Afseth 1124 Articles
Grant Afseth is a contributor to NBA Analysis Network who specializes in creating in-depth analysis. He also covers the Texas NBA teams for FanNation.