The Athletic

Zion Williamson saves Pelicans with one-of-a-kind greatness. ‘I’ve never seen anything like him’

NEW ORLEANS – Most all-time NBA greats establish the qualities that make them better than everyone else early in their careers. They all bring one skill or physical trait that separates them from the pack. Michael Jordan and LeBron James had once-in-a-generation athletic gifts. Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry were unstoppable shotmakers. Luka Doncic and Larry Bird are basketball scholars who could pick apart any defense.

Zion Williamson isn’t quite like any of them, or anyone else. But his path to greatness is starting to seem just as undeniable as it was for them.

Williamson’s spectacular performance in the Pelicans’ 119-118 win over the Timberwolves Wednesday night encapsulated what makes him different from anything NBA fans have seen. He finished with a career-high 43 points (33 in the second half) on 14-of-21 shooting. He scored the final 14 points of the night for the Pels as they wrestled the lead away from Minnesota late. He also went 14-of-19 from the free throw line.

As good as those numbers are, they don’t quite capture his special night. He often looked like he was playing a different sport than everyone else on the floor.

“He’s playing football, we’re playing basketball,” Minnesota guard D’Angelo Russell said after the game. “We can’t touch him or guard him. So, good for him.”

Russell meant this as a slight to the officiating crew from Wednesday night – and possibly to Zion himself. In reality, Russell provided an accurate description of exactly what separates Zion from other historically great offensive players.

He has a combination of physical traits rarely seen in someone his size: strength, quickness, explosion, touch and body control. But what makes him so different is his relentless approach as a scorer. He plays basketball the way former Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch once described his playing style on the football field: He hits you over and over (and over and over) until you wear down. If the defense tries to build a wall, Zion will run right through it. If they try to build a bigger wall, he’ll just put a bigger hole in it.

When Zion touches the ball, the other nine people on the court know what he wants to do. Everyone in the arena knows. And yet, it’s still tough to stop him.

That was the case again on Wednesday night. Of the 21 shots he attempted against Minnesota, 20 came in the paint and only two came outside of the restricted area. This while going against Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best rim protectors of his generation. Williamson treated him like he was just another obstacle in his path.

“I’ve never seen anything like him. I’ve played with different types of players – scorers and guys who score in a variety of ways. But never someone who’s so paint-dominant,” teammate CJ McCollum said. “Everything is predicted on drives to the paint. … the ability to make the right plays and be able to handle and move the way he does. The fluidity in his movements, but also the body control on the jumps. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that. I don’t think we will.”

Most great scorers add counters to their games to keep defenses honest. Paint-dominant players Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ja Morant throw in a jump shot or two to give the defense a different look – or at least to give themselves a breather.

Williamson, on the other hand, doesn’t take his foot off the pedal. He wants to go directly at his defender and get to the rim every chance he gets. Among his 422 field goal attempts this season, 396 have been in the paint. This is while getting double- or triple-teamed practically every time he touches the ball.

But he’s not dominating smaller players in the post like Shaquille O’Neal. He’s handling the ball on the perimeter like a point guard. Defenses can put multiple bodies in his path and brace for his approach. They still can’t stay in front of him.

The consistent downhill pressure Williamson puts on defenses is rare to see in players, even those with much smaller roles than him. He’s averaging 30.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists in December. He’s carried the Pelicans’ offense while fighting through a crowd of bodies that few others have to see as consistently as he does, and he’s managed it easily.

Wednesday was a special night for Williamson in part because he was his first time reaching the 40-point mark in his career. On top of that, it was a prominent example of his growth as a closer in high-pressure moments.

In his third season, Williamson’s grasp of when to take over games and what his team needs from him in big moments has improved considerably. As he’s grown, his teammates have gained more confidence in his ability to wrestle control of the offense as things get tight. Every late-game possession ran through Williamson on Wednesday, as he reeled off 14 consecutive points in the final three minutes as the lead went back and forth.

“Get the ball to Z and get the f––– out of the way,” McCollum said when asked to describe the team’s plan late in the game.

The absence of Brandon Ingram, still out with a toe injury, has provided Williamson more chances to take control of the offense in high-pressure moments. Williamson has maximized those opportunities, scoring 37 points so far in December in games that were within five points in the final five minutes, second only to DeMar DeRozan (48) in “clutch” points this month. Finding a balance between Williamson and Ingram in late-game situations will be critical once the roster gets fully healthy.

The hope is that Williamson will become even more difficult to slow down late in games as his decision-making and court vision improve. Teams will have no choice but to send multiple bodies his way, which should provide easier looks for Ingram, McCollum and shooters like Trey Murphy.

“I want to win. I can’t just sit here and always say that I want to win. I’ve got to show it,” Williamson said. “It was just one of those things where my coach and my teammates were like, ‘Hey, go to work.’ They trusted what I would do with the basketball.”

Zion has also been more confident in the other parts of his game of late. His 14-point run in the fourth quarter started with two free throws and a 3-pointer, long considered two of his weaker offensive skills. The three came with 2:17 left in the game and the Pelicans trailing by five. Without that bucket, there’s a good chance Minnesota ends up pulling away.

Then, there was the play when he swooped in to steal a pass with 41 seconds left before throwing down a huge dunk to give New Orleans the lead. The same player who went through some major defensive struggles earlier this year came up with the biggest play of the game on that end of the floor.

Williamson’s incredible offensive output lately is what stands out most to the public. But his gradual improvement in all the areas that will be tested in higher-leverage games – his ability to take over games late, his shooting, his defense – are more tangible signs of progress in his journey to greatness.

“I think that’s the maturation process of Z, along with other guys. They’ll continue to add to their games as they get experience in the league,” Pels coach Willie Green said. “Tonight, he just played a balanced game. He dominated where he needed to on both ends of the floor.”

(Picture: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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