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Zion Is Having One of the Best Preseasons in History

We know, we know—it’s just preseason. But the Pelicans rookie is still dominating like few before. Here are the six numbers to know.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Zion Williamson has captured the public’s imagination in a way that leads to many hyperbolic proclamations. But this isn’t hyperbole: Zion is probably having the most statistically dominant preseason a rookie has ever had. Just like he did in college, he’s doing things we’ve never seen before.

Yes, we understand that this is just preseason, but even given the low stakes, what Williamson is doing is incredible. Let’s examine some of the mind-boggling numbers he put up in his first four preseason games and attempt to put them in perspective.

23.3: Williamson is averaging 23.3 points per game. Leaguewide NBA preseason statistics have been publicly available only since the 2005-06 season, but since then, no rookie has averaged 20 PPG in the preseason. Kevin Durant came the closest when he averaged 18.8 PPG in 2007-08. Durant, however, shot just 39.6 percent from the field in that preseason, which showed that not all 19-year-olds are physically ready to compete with grown men from day one. Even if you adjust for playing time, Zion’s 30.8 points per 36 minutes leads all rookies (minimum 75 minutes). Only Joel Embiid (27.9) and DeJuan Blair (28.1) have even cracked 25.

Basketball historian and researcher Todd Spehr compiled a massive database of preseason basketball statistics that is far more robust than anything in the public sphere. Per his research, Williamson’s 23.3 PPG is the highest preseason effort by a rookie since David Robinson’s 24.9 in 1989-90. The Admiral was 24 at the time—five years older than Williamson is now. Spehr provided us with the preseason scoring averages for each of the top 15 rookie scorers in NBA history. Only Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Bellamy, and Robinson outscored Zion. Field goal percentages are unavailable for the Big Dipper and Bells, while Robinson shot 51.1 percent from the floor. Seven others also scored more than 20 PPG, but the only other player since the 1976 NBA–ABA merger is Michael Jordan, who posted 22.7 PPG on 59.2 percent shooting.

Most Preseason PPG by Players Ranked in Top 15 of Rookie Scorers

Player PPG Season AGE
Player PPG Season AGE
Walt Bellamy 26.2 1961-62 22
Wilt Chamberlain 25.8 1959-60 23
David Robinson 24.9 1989-90 24
Sidney Wicks 23.3 1971-72 22
Elvin Hayes 23.0 1968-69 22
Michael Jordan 22.7 1984-85 21
Rick Barry 22.4 1965-66 21
Oscar Robertson 21.7 1960-61 21
Geoff Petrie 20.7 1970-71 22
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 20.6 1969-70 22
*Zion Williamson: 23.3 PPG in 2019-20 preseason

71.4: This is Williamson’s shooting percentage this preseason. No, not his free throw percentage. It’s his field goal percentage. He’s the only player since 2005-06 to average 20-plus PPG in the preseason while shooting over 70 percent from the field. The only other player to manage even 60 percent from the field while scoring 20-plus points during this stretch was prime Dwight Howard in the 2008-09 preseason, when he put up 20.9 PPG on 64.0 percent shooting ahead of an eventual run to the NBA Finals. Four preseason games is a small sample size, but in case you’re wondering, the closest anyone has come to the 20-70 club in the regular season is Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 24.1 PPG while shooting 68.3 percent from the field in 1966-67. His 76ers team went 68-13 en route to a title.

73.7: A 71.4 field goal percentage is amazing, but doubters will likely point out that Williamson’s propensity for attempting shots at the rim inflates his efficiency numbers. I’d argue that merely getting shots at the rim is a skill in itself. Nonetheless, let’s look at true shooting percentage, which includes free throws and 3-pointers (weaknesses for Williamson) in measuring shooting efficiency. Among players to average 20-plus PPG and attempt more than 40 field goals in the preseason since 2005-06, only a pair of legendary sharpshooters for the Warriors have posted higher true shooting percentages: Stephen Curry (twice) and Anthony Morrow(!).

Best Preseason True Shooting Percentage Since 2005-06

Player TS%* Season TS% rank in following regular season
Player TS%* Season TS% rank in following regular season
Stephen Curry 77.6% 2018-19 8th
Anthony Morrow 74.3% 2009-10 21st
Stephen Curry 73.9% 2015-16 1st
Zion Williamson 73.7% 2019-20 TBD
Kevin Martin 71.7% 2007-08 9th
Zach LaVine 71.2% 2019-20 TBD
Kevin Martin 70.5% 2008-09 13th
Kevin Durant 70.0% 2016-17 3rd
Giannis Antetokounmpo 69.7% 2018-19 7th
*Minimum 20+ PPG and 40 FGA

17: Just as amazing as Williamson’s production is how he does it. Sixty-eight of his 93 points have come in the paint—that’s nearly three-quarters of his points, and it nets out to 17 points per game. That’s more points per game than any other player has averaged in the paint (minimum of four games played) in the preseason since 2005-06. And like overall scoring, this is not a function of playing time: His 22.5 points in the paint per 36 minutes are also the most over this span. To put this in perspective, the only qualified player to average 20 points in the paint per 36 minutes in the regular season since 1996-97 is Shaquille O’Neal.

32: Sure, Williamson has dominated in the paint. But more specifically, he’s dominated in a particularly valuable bit of real estate within the paint: the restricted area. In four games, he’s already hit 32 shots within this 4-foot radius surrounding the rim (in 40 attempts). His 8.0 field goals made per game in the restricted area leads not just rookies, but all players in the preseason since 2005-06 (minimum four games played). Only one other player has averaged more than six (Andre Drummond). For a true sense of how dominant this performance is, you have to see how it compares with the regular-season efforts of the most dominant interior offensive weapon in the NBA’s modern history: Shaq. I’ll again add the caveat that a four-game preseason sample size is very small, but in the era for which locational shooting splits are available (since 1996-97) no NBA player has averaged 8.0 field goals made per game in the restricted area. Furthermore, the two players who came closest (Shaq and Giannis Antetokounmpo) both shot worse percentages than Williamson’s 80 percent.

Most FGM in the Restricted Area Since 1996-97

Player FGM PG FGA PG FG% Season
Player FGM PG FGA PG FG% Season
Zion Williamson 8.0 10.0 80.0 2019-20*
Giannis Antetokounmpo 7.9 10.7 73.7 2018-19
Shaquille O'Neal 7.6 10.9 70.4 1997-98
Shaquille O'Neal 7.4 11.1 67.0 1996-97
Shaquille O'Neal 7.3 9.9 73.8 2002-03
Shaquille O'Neal 7.3 9.9 73.6 2001-02
Shaquille O'Neal 7.2 9.7 74.8 1999-00
Shaquille O'Neal 6.8 8.8 77.4 2000-01
*Preseason

1: Perhaps the best cohort of players to compare Zion with are the other no. 1 overall picks in the one-and-done era, which began with the 2006 draft. This group of players has featured some busts (Anthony Bennett, Greg Oden, and almost certainly Markelle Fultz) and some disappointments (Andrea Bargnani and Andrew Wiggins). It’s also produced a wealth of top-shelf NBA talent, including Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and Ben Simmons: In total, the group has produced 13 All-NBA appearances and 29 All-Star bids.

But none of them had a preseason like Zion. Williamson is easily tops among these top picks in not only scoring, but also in true shooting percentage. And he may get only better from here—most of these players ended up scoring more once the real games started. Collectively, the previous no. 1 overall picks since 2006 averaged 13.1 PPG in their first preseason and went on to average 16 PPG in their first regular season. If Zion increases his 23.3 proportionally, that would put his regular-season scoring average at 28.4 PPG, which would be the best rookie scoring average in 50 years.

Most Preseason PPG From No. 1 Picks in One-and-Done Era

Player PPG TS% Season
Player PPG TS% Season
Zion Williamson 23.3 73.7 2019-20
Deandre Ayton 18.2 65.1 2018-19
Blake Griffin 17.3 61.1 2010-11*
Kyrie Irving 16.0 48.4 2011-12
John Wall 15.7 48.0 2010-11
Anthony Davis 14.9 49.0 2012-13
Derrick Rose 13.9 56.3 2008-09
Andrew Wiggins 11.8 49.6 2014-15
Karl-Anthony Towns 11.7 60.3 2015-16
Greg Oden 11.5 61.9 2008-09*
Ben Simmons 11.4 48.6 2017-18*
*Missed a full regular season before preseason debut

None of this actually counts since it’s the preseason, but that doesn’t mean what Zion is doing isn’t special or worth considering. The numbers come to life when you see a 6-foot-6 teenager treating two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert like a small child at the rim. There’s no faking that.

Everyone knows what’s coming when Williamson takes the floor. Will anyone be able to stop it? Starting next week, we all get to find out for real.

Mike Lynch is managing stathead at Sports-Reference.com.