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Defending Zion Williamson is, increasingly, becoming one of the most complex strategic challenges in the NBA. His size, agility and touch around the basket give him at least one distinct advantage in almost any individual matchup and the Pelicans have increasingly put the ball in his hands, giving him opportunities to create and choose his mode of attack.
To this point, no team has been all that successful. Williamson is averaging 27.1 points and 3.7 assists per game, shooting 61.4 percent from the field with just 55.9 percent of his made field goals assisted on. Toronto is the only team against which Zion is averaging less than 20 points per game in multiple matchups this season but the Pelicans played the Raptors in their first and sixth games of the season, while everyone was still finding their rhythm and before the Pelicans had really opened things up for him as an on-ball creator.
You could see the challenges Zion presents in Monday’s loss to the Warriors. Zion put up 32 points, shooting 12-of-24 from the field, with Draymond Green as his primary defender. Green may be one of the few defenders in the league who can come close to matching Zion’s blend of strength and agility. He’s an elite defender and was still given the business, and most other teams don’t even have any defender in that physical archetype to try and throw at Zion.
What kind of defenders have opposing teams thrown at Zion Williamson?
The NBA’s new Court Optix statistics don’t display data for every player but it’s at least somewhat telling that Zion does not rank among the top-20 players in double-teams received per game. He spends about as much time per game, on average, with the ball in his hands as Bradley Beal. But Beal sees an average of 22.5 double-teams per game, 47.1 percent of his possessions, whereas appears somewhere below the cut-off for this list — 18.6 double-teams per game.
There also isn’t much evidence that a specific kind of defender gives Zion trouble. In all, 28 different defenders have been matched up with him for at least 25 possessions this season and there is a fairly even split between defenders who could be loosely classified as 3/4s (Julius Randle, Robert Covington, Keldon Johnson, etc.) and defenders who could be loosely classified as 4/5s (Brook Lopez, Naz Reid, Draymond Green, Marvin Bagley). Against the hybrid forwards in this group, Zion averaged 43.2 points and 4.7 assists per 100 possessions with a 78.2 effective field goal percentage. Against the hybrid bigs, he’s averaged 46.1 points and 7.3 assists per 100 possessions with a 74.1 effective field goal percentage. So maybe when trying to match Zion with quickness, opponents are getting a slightly less aggressive Zion, but at that level of productivity and efficiency who the heck cares?
Only three defenders in that group of 28 have had any reasonable measure of success against Zion, holding him below his season average for points per 100 possessions and holding the Pelicans below their season average for points per 100 possessions while they’re on Zion (showing that they’re impacting his scoring but not at the expense of letting someone else go off) — Brook Lopez, Draymond Green and Jae Crowder. However, all three of those defenders are on the lower end in terms of total possessions defending Zion (11th, 18th and 27th among this group of 28) so we may be looking at small sample size more than any meaningful pattern.
The idea of a “stopper” for a player of Zion’s talent and skill is always a bit of a fantasy — the best offensive players will eventually overwhelm the best individual defenders. As he continues to develop he’s going to be in that class of player who dictates a defensive strategy far beyond “who’s got Zion?”
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