Working his way back with the team after an absence to be with family, Zion Williamson was used in short bursts throughout the first official game in the Disney bubble. Playing in three-to-four minute stretches at the start of each quarter, Zion flashed the pieces of athleticism and playmaking that make him a potential star. He went 6-8 from the field, hammered home a few lob passes and posted an incredibly efficient 13 points in 15 minutes.
He was also a game-worst -16 in those minutes.
I'm not the biggest fan of individual plus-minus statistics. It's a team game, and those numbers become a product of the lineups a player is in as well as going against. But the rotational patterns of Alvin Gentry on Thursday night accounted for most of those variables, as Zion started every quarter and would share the floor with eight different Pelicans.
The always-impactful offensive threat Zion provides can be mitigated by his troubling positioning on defense and the nature of how he impacts the game. It's the single largest piece of development for Zion moving forward.
The Pelicans lost by two, and to the frustration of many, Zion didn't see the floor over the final stretch of the game. For a team scrapping for positioning in the Western Conference and fighting for a postseason berth, the move appeared puzzling. But if the Pelicans are to avoid using Zion beyond their views of his limitations, this Disney experience for him needs to be as much about teaching moments and improvements as it does making an impact that spearheads the team's ascent to the 2020 playoffs.
The highly anticipated debut of the greatest women's college basketball player ever took place over the weekend. It was a lot more difficult than expected.
Sabrina Ionescu and her New York Liberty took the floor against the league's top team in the Seattle Storm. The Storm were the unanimous selection amongst ESPN analysts to win the 2020 WNBA Championship. On Saturday, it was easy to see why.
Their defensive presence was swarming and in postseason form. They applied smart, relentless and coordinated pressure against the league's top rookie and never allowed her to get into a rhythm. Ionescu finished the game with 12 points, 4 assists and 4 turnovers, going 0-for-8 from deep, the most missed threes in a debut without a make in WNBA or NBA history.
Not all opponents for Ionescu will be as stingy and tough as the Storm. What Seattle did do was provide a roadmap for how to frustrate and limit Ionescu's impact, turning her into a spot-up shooter and a passer. Whether opponents copy their strategy, let alone if they're able to execute it with the same level of gusto, remains to be seen.
In a copycat league, experimentation is how innovation takes place. Some team, coach or front office has to be bold enough to try something new in the pursuit of success. If it fails, others will be detracted from trying it. If it succeeds, it's the new style all others are copying en masse.
We've seen this manifest itself a few ways over the last fifteen years. The Boston Celtics were the first to completely overhaul chemistry overnight, with ground-shaking trades to land Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They didn't popularize superstars teaming up, but showed the pathway for how a roster can be constructed on the fly around such a team, using several mid-season veteran acquisitions to field a competitive group. Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns popularized pace, spacing and 3-point shooting like never before.
Several years later, the Golden State Warriors brought sweeping change to the game's style. They brought back a switching defense and won championships due to the presence of Draymond Green as their "small-ball 5" for spurts. The term, now widely known and duplicated, wasn't without its detractors when first inculcated.
So what teams are brave enough to experiment with new ideas and see if they can pioneer the NBA's next sweeping revolution? We may be seeing the most drastic two-tiered shift ever, as the Houston Rockets are trailblazing with a radical plan on both ends of the floor.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).