The evolution of Zion Williamson

Zion Williamson is the healthiest he has ever been, but he's seen a shift in his style of play. This is how Zion has evolved his game to stay a step ahead.

New Orleans Pelicans v Atlanta Hawks
New Orleans Pelicans v Atlanta Hawks / Todd Kirkland/GettyImages

There have been few players who have tantalized more than Zion Williamson. He plays basketball like a wrecking ball with a jetpack, smashing defenses to smithereens. A singular talent, watching Zion attacking the basket is like watching an 18-wheeler in bumper cars. However, for all his highlights, he has weathered a cascade of injuries, robbing us of so much of his career, but this season has been different. 

He has already set his career high in games played at 64 and is 23 minutes away from eclipsing his previous high of 2026 minutes played. His newfound ability to maintain his availability has been a crucial development for the 45-30 New Orleans Pelicans and has them on pace to hit their second-highest win total since moving to New Orleans. 

While Zion feels much like the player he once was, his game is undergoing a recalibration. The new Zion Williamson isn’t like the old, and he could be better off for it. 

The old Zion Williamson

To really understand the new Zion, you need to know what he once was. After an abbreviated rookie season that lasted 24 games due to injury, Williamson erupted in year two, averaging 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game on an effective field goal percentage of 61.6 percent. By Box Plus-Minus (BPM), it was the third-best age 20 season since 1973-74 (the farthest BPM goes back), the third-highest points per game, and the best effective field goal percentage for any player in their age-20 season to average over 10.0 field goal attempts per game. 

His age-20 campaign is in the running for the greatest ever, with only LeBron James and Luka Doncic having better claims. Unfortunately, injuries have been just as persistent as his play. Following his dominant sophomore season, he spent the next two seasons befuddled by injury. He missed the 2021-22 season with a foot injury and then suited up for 29 games in 2022-23. Despite all the starts and stops, his statistical production remained elite, even if it was sparing. 

Entering the 2023-24 season, Williamson’s fifth since being drafted, he had played a grand total of 114 games — Jalen Green, in the midst of his third season, already has 217 games to his name. Even in limited action, Zion left no room for interpretation over what type of player he was. He was a freight train of rim pressure. 

In each of his first three seasons, he finished first or second in layup attempts and field goals per game, and he sprinkled in a heaping helping of dunks for good measure. While his efficiency wasn’t spectacular (59.2 percent on layups), the sheer volume of attempts (11.5 layup attempts per game), and the free throws that followed (8.4 attempts) made him an offensive force. 

For as fantastic as Zion was, his profile was a dangerous one, as his entire game was predicated on scoring at the rim at outlier volume. With relatively modest efficiency and playmaking, any drop in volume would see him go from elite to mediocre on offense, and the less said about his rebounding and defense the better. With the ever-present risk of age or injury-related athletic decline, Zion’s game was being played perilously close to a cliff, which makes the new Zion as necessary as it is exciting.  

The new Zion Williamson 

Zion Williamson hasn’t become a completely different player. His game is still largely predicated on getting to the basket. In 2023-24, he once again is leading the league in layup attempts per game (11.03) and field goals (6.52), and the raw numbers look an awful lot like what he has shown prior. 

*All stats as of March 31

While Zion’s layup volume remains elite, even though he’s seen his share of shots zero to three feet from the basket decline for the fourth consecutive season, how he’s getting there has changed dramatically. 

Early in his career, he got to the basket like a power forward of yesteryear through post-ups and paint touches, but in each season he has seen his post-ups decline in favor of more drives. Not only is he driving more, but he’s holding the ball longer and taking more dribbles. The stylistic shift in Zion’s game is quite clear. He has morphed from a pure frontcourt player to a perimeter player capable of dominating in the paint. 

The shift towards the perimeter is a wise choice for Zion and the Pelicans. From a height and length perspective, Zion, listed at 6-foot-6, is woefully undersized for a power forward. Faced with such a size disadvantage in the post, he had to use his athleticism and strength to beat larger opponents to the basket. The physically demanding style, when combined with injuries, is unlikely to age well, and his move towards the perimeter has allowed him to take advantage of all his gifts. 

On the perimeter, Zion is an impossible proposition for defenses. Guards are too small, and frontcourt players are either too slow or too weak. While he could always continue to blow by and bruise in the post, it's best to give your stars as many avenues to attack a defense as possible. 

Deploying Zion on the perimeter has also allowed the Pelicans to use him as the ball handler in the pick and roll more often. As a rookie, he was hardly ever the ball handler in pick and roll actions, but since his second season, he has seen his frequency increase from 13.8 percent to 15.0 to 18.5 percent this season. 

Unsurprisingly, the stylistic shift in Zion’s game has also led to changes in his statistical profile. Over his first three seasons, he was much more focused on scoring than passing, but that has started to change. 

An increase of 1.8 assists per 36 minutes with a drop in turnovers per 36 minutes of 0.1 might not appear impressive, but it’s a significant improvement in playmaking for a high-usage scorer. The shift toward playmaking has seen Zion post a career-high in bad pass turnovers, but the decision has been well worth it as the increase in assists has helped stave off a decline in his shooting volume and efficiency.   

PGA: Points Generated from Assists // TPG: Total Points Generated

The new Zion isn’t simply passing the ball more, but when he is, it’s leading to far more assist opportunities for his teammates. His passes per game are almost identical to his explosive 2020-21 season, but his potential assists and assist-to-pass percentage have exploded. 

The rounding out of his offensive skillset has been a trend throughout his career, and it appears that many of the changes started in his abbreviated 2022-23 season. If we look at Zion’s career before his missed 2021-22 season and after, we see two different players. 

Why has Zion changed his game?

Bluntly, the 2023-24 version of Zion is not nearly as dominant a player as the 2020-21 vintage and is even a few steps behind his truncated 2022-23 season. The drop in scoring volume and efficiency is real, and while the passing uptick has mitigated those declines, it hasn’t been enough to offset all of the losses. His field goal and true shooting points added, where zero is the league average, have taken a significant hit and illustrate Zion’s new reality. 

In all likelihood, Zion has changed his game to incorporate more playmaking in response to his declining scoring ability. While he can still get to the basket with the best of them, he’s clearly lost some of the explosiveness that allowed him to get to the rim at such a historic rate, and the smoking gun is his decline in dunk attempts.

Even though Zion’s layup volume has held relatively steady, the decrease in his ability to generate dunks has taken a significant chunk out of his scoring punch and suggests he has either experienced a physical decline or is intentionally playing a less taxing brand of basketball. 

There’s a chance we’ve already seen the best version of Zion Williamson. His age-20 season was otherworldly and portended an incredibly bright future, but it was always a precarious profile to maintain. Attacking the rim relentlessly is a young man’s game, and injuries have a way of grounding even the highest fliers. However, his direction towards facilitating is an encouraging step in his basketball journey. 

What’s next for Zion Williamson

Zion Williamson is still an excellent player, but he’s not the surefire All-NBA talent he was at his peak. Considering how much time he has missed, simply being healthy is a huge step forward, but the sense of unfulfilled potential will inevitably follow him if he can’t regain the production that made him a sensation. 

The ship hasn’t sailed on Zion being an All-NBA talent, but it will likely look different than what we first imagined. Instead of being a dominant low-post scorer, the next evolution of Zion Williamson needs to be a lead ball handler who bends defense through rim pressure and makes a living through kick outs as much as finishes at the rim. 

The Pelicans haven’t fully leaned into this version of Zion. Instead, they’ve straddled the line between the old and new, but the time is coming for them to commit to a direction. Using him as the defacto point guard leans into his strengths by giving him more opportunities to utilize his unrivaled combination of size, strength, and burst to create opportunities for himself and others. There’s still an All-NBA talent in there, but instead of him looking like baby Shaquille O’Neal, it might just be a jumbo Russell Westbrook. 

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