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Here’s the play that unlocks Zion Williamson’s greatness

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How the Pelicans can get Zion the ball in his best spots more consistently.

Zion Williamson on the court for the Pelicans.
The Pelicans need to get Zion Williamson the ball more consistently.

Zion Williamson is not even two weeks into his NBA career, but in just 26.3 minutes per game the NBA’s own Incredible Hulk is already averaging 19.5 points and 8.2 rebounds, with a team-high 24.5 PER and a usage rate above every Pelican not named Brandon Ingram.

When he’s on the court, the New Orleans is outscoring their opponent by a wider margin than the Milwaukee Bucks. In the 130 minutes the Pelicans have played without him during that stretch, their offense drops from league best to about 20th; on the other end they disintegrate.

News flash: Williamson is amazing and the Pelicans are 3-3 since his first game, with the seventh-best net rating in the whole league. But after Sunday’s loss against the Houston Rockets, Alvin Gentry was frustrated by his team’s inability to feed the No. 1 overall pick down the stretch. “Zion can’t go four minutes without touching the basketball and that’s on me,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve got to make sure that will never happen again. So I take responsibility for that. And if we’re not gonna give it to him and not gonna execute, then we gotta have different people in the game. That’s on me also.”

There are a couple obvious ways to get Williamson going. They can post him up near the left block (a spot that allows him to turn over his right shoulder and push whoever’s guarding him under the basket). They can outlet him the ball in transition and let him hunt mismatches against a retreating defense. Or they can put him in a pick-and-roll — primarily as a screener, but soon enough as someone with the ball in his hands, too — unlocking perhaps the NBA’s most intimidating vertical leap on jaunts to the rim.

For what it’s worth, attacks from outside the paint haven’t been much of an option. Williamson has attempted just two threes since his debut and has yet to attempt a single mid-range jump shot in his career. But in situations where he’s off the ball on the weakside, there’s another way to get him going: a designed misdirection that belongs on a football field. (For even more details on the different ways the Pelicans are using him, make sure you read this from Mike Prada.)

The Pelicans used the same concept last season with Julius Randle, but Williamson elevates it to a different level. Here’s how it looked during the preseason:

It’s a pick-and-roll that’s not designed to hit a roll man, skip it to the corner, or sink a pull-up jumper. Instead, Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday are only looking for Williamson. He’s the target, cannonballing off a screen set by the roll man (in the two plays above, that’d be Jahlil Okafor).

Over the past two weeks, New Orleans has tried to recreate that play’s success, often with premeditated twists that are meant to keep defenders guessing. Sometimes that means changing where he is on the floor, as was the case in a win against the Cleveland Cavaliers, where Williamson jogs towards an Ingram-Derrick Favors side pick-and-roll along the baseline.

Favors doesn’t screen Tristan Thompson, but he doesn’t have to — the moment Thompson tries to catch his breath is the moment Cleveland surrenders two points. Williamson is too fast.

Below, what you see is Ingram reading the defense’s behavior instead of a script, but the results are the same. Williamson’s sudden kinetic gusto lets him plow into open space as soon as his man helps on Favors’ initial roll, all but guaranteeing a layup or trip to the free-throw line.

Only three players have been more prolific scoring on cuts than Williamson: Deandre Ayton, Bam Adebayo, and Clint Capela. To that end, he currently ranks in the 75th percentile on a points per possession basis, and only Capela averages more than Williamson’s five points off a cut per game.

But sometimes even the most electric athlete can’t overcome a play that unravels due to poor timing, flawed spacing, and some teammates not doing what they’re supposed to do. It sounds crazy, but absorbing undeniable talent can, at times, be burdensome. In Williamson’s first six games we’ve already seen actions designed to get him going fall apart for one reason or another.

Here, instead of rolling hard and putting his body into Trey Lyles, Favors catches a pass that was intended for Williamson.

And in the play below, Williamson’s timing and placement on the floor is off. Watch as he backs up to give himself a running start, forcing Ball to take a couple extra dribbles and make the handoff more awkward than it was meant to be.

The fundamental objective of these plays is to leverage one of the most explosive players in NBA history. Let him plunge into the paint while his teammates occupy half the defense’s attention. It’s brilliant, and despite some early growing pains should stay at the top of Gentry’s playbook. Once the Pelicans are able to execute it with better feel, timing, and awareness — their new starting five is crushing people — slowing Williamson down will be even more physically and mentally demanding than it already is.