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.
A good friend and terrific basketball analyst Jeff Siegel made an important musing during the game in regards to Zion and his positioning on defense:
"It's always crazy to me that Zion has such high basketball IQ offensively and has absolutely no idea what to do on the other end."
The point doesn't fall on deaf ears. How can someone be so smart for how to attack defensive rotations on one end, but not be able to turn that knowledge into successful execution of the same rotations?
For Zion's case, it seems to come down to the type of athlete he is. For years, at any level he's played, Zion has been the best athlete on the floor. He has been able to gamble and win so much that the safe course, the non-gambling route, isn't an option he weighs. If there's a steal, turnover, deflection, block or aggressive play to be made, Zion has built his entire defensive arsenal on making them.
It isn't so much that he doesn't know defensive rotations, just that the minutia of how to play defense hasn't needed to apply to him since he more than recovers from his mistakes.
Strangely, the Pelicans have the exact opposite of a defender on their team. Veteran guard JJ Redick is one of the league's least explosive athletes and isn't big or long for his position. He's carved out a long career for himself based on meticulous positioning, reliability and attuned effort to his presence.
His former coach Stan Van Gundy, who was on the broadcast for the game, made some gushing comments about Redick after he took a charge in the first quarter:
"If he's supposed to be somewhere on a rotation, if he's supposed to be in position, he will be there. That allows you as a coach to have great trust in him. He may not be a great individual, one-on-one defender, but if you want to build a quality defense in this league, you need guys like JJ Redick."
Help defense is all about predictability, reliability and discipline. As we coaches always say, a defense is only as good as its weakest link. Help is predicated on a teammate knowing and trusting that the guy next to them will be where they need to be when they need to be there. It takes a great deal of discipline to move in such a timely fashion. In Zion's case, it takes discipline not to chase the home run play, the highlight reel block, the steal for a transition dunk.
As a coach, it's difficult to fully dissuade Zion from taking those gambles. After all, they save possessions and create transition points. To saddle his freedom to roam is like putting an attack dog in a crate. Gentry and his staff need to walk that fine line between drilling impactful rotations into Zion's game and letting him make instinctual plays that others simply cannot.
One area he could stand to limit is in gambling for on-ball steals. Zion goes to the perimeter with a poorly angled closeout, which gives up a middle drive. Instead of using his athleticism to recover and prevent a shot from occurring, he gets back into the play only to reach for an on-ball steal. His man spins back, and although he misses the layup, gets a fairly clean look:
The Jazz wind up getting two or three looks on this possession after winning the offensive rebound battle. After a full reset, Georges Niang gets a quick rip drive to the rim. Zion makes an incredibly heady play to sniff out Niang's spin move when Lonzo cuts him off from driving baseline, and goes for the highlight reel block.
Instead of getting his butt to the basket and squaring up at the rim, Williamson goes to swat it from the side. There's value in that, as it prevents a kickout to his man. But when Zion misses as he swings for the block, he acts as a blockade to Jaxson Hayes, whose man walks in for the offensive rebound and gets the putback:
Can Zion get away with his gambles? Absolutely. But if doing so has a negative impact on his teammates and prevents them from doing their job, he may have to reel it in a bit.
In general, his positioning is a little on the lazier side. He got burned a couple times by over-anticipating cuts that quicker opponents could break off, or completely losing sight of the ball:
The two clips above are indicative of not being fundamentally sound as opposed to an overreliance on athleticism or a home run play. His simple positioning, ability to see both man and ball, and not over-jumping to the hoop when his man makes a pass all will help him be able to harness those athletic moments more frequently. He should want to improve here so he can chase those big plays.
When the Pelicans play Zion as a multi-positional defender, they'll want to have switches he's involved in. Switching with him can create two benefits: it negates the point of attack offense through screens and it keeps Zion guarding the ball, where he won't be vulnerable in off-ball rotations.
But so far, Zion has been suspect with his communications, crisp rotations or ability to take great angles when accepting a switch. Two plays below leave some grey area where it's hard to tell exactly what the intended coverage for the Pelicans was. Zion is either too late to react and commits a foul, or is over-aggressive accepting the switch and gets beaten by a quicker man:
Again, the license Zion has to make gambles cannot negatively impact his teammates. By picking up a foul with a miscommunication and giving up a layup with an overzealous jump switch, Zion is a high-risk, high-reward defender.
Nowhere was that more evident than a decision he made in the final five seconds of the shot clock in the fourth quarter. Up four, Williamson was guarding Royce O'Neale, a less than stellar offensive threat or 3-point shooter. As Mitchell made a great behind-the-back move one-on-one with Jrue Holiday draped all over him. As Mitchel broke free and appeared ready to rise for a step-back, Zion was waiting in the hole.
He made an aggressive move from one pass away, forcing Mitchell to kick to O'Neale and get the ball out of Spida's hands. Brandon Ingram made the next rotation up from the corner to get a late contest, and the Pels forced a miss:
There are so many times when Zion's instinct to just go at the ball saves the Pelicans and helps force subpar looks from the offense. In late-clock situations, where offenses have less time to punish those gambles and rotate the ball for open looks, Zion can be more impactful and lengthen his leash to be a risk-taker.
Zion's rules will be different, on defense and on offense. We don't have to make as big of a deal about his stance or the quick footsteps because he has the burst to make up for it. We can be off-put by him turning himself around on defense and losing sight of his man, but it's rare that those mistakes truly burn him.
What's more important than turning Zion into the prototypically fundamentally sound defender is giving him the knowledge of how and when to weaponize his gifts. Knowing what situations to be reliable and which to be a renegade will maximize his utility and transform the Pelicans to a more consistent defensive unit.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).