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The Rookie Curve: Zion Williamson Is Heading Back to School in New Orleans

Zion could be the NBA’s next great superstar. But as a rookie, he’s more likely to be a super role player.

Jarvis Kim/Getty

The summer is a time to dream big about newly drafted rookies. But paths to NBA stardom are never linear, and every rookie has a unique set of roadblocks to overcome before they can capitalize on their potential. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will be examining some of the 2019 draft’s top talents and how their team’s situation will affect their freshman season. Welcome to the Rookie Curve.

Zion Williamson may not get the chance to live up to the hype right away. The no. 1 overall pick is entering the NBA on a better team than most players taken at the top of the draft. The Pelicans, even without Anthony Davis, have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. They will have the luxury of bringing their rookie sensation along slowly, which means he may have to sacrifice some aspects of his game for the good of the team. He will likely start his NBA career as a super role player, much like he was at Duke.

New Orleans has one of the league’s deepest rosters. It already had an All-Star-caliber point guard (Jrue Holiday) and added two established veterans (JJ Redick and Derrick Favors) who started on teams that earned top-four seeds last season. They received two recent no. 2 overall picks in the Anthony Davis trade (Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball), and one may have to come off the bench. New Orleans used to struggle to fill out its roster around Davis. Now, in its first season under new executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin, it has more NBA-caliber players than it can even use:

PG: Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Frank Jackson
SG: JJ Redick, E’Twaun Moore, Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker
SF: Brandon Ingram, Darius Miller, Kenrich Williams
PF: Zion Williamson, Nicolò Melli
C: Derrick Favors, Jaxson Hayes, Jahlil Okafor

Zion will likely start at power forward, making him the rare rookie who will be an immediate mismatch for opposing teams. There aren’t many 4s in this smaller and faster NBA who can defend a player with his jaw-dropping combination of size (6-foot-7 and 285 pounds) and athleticism. Most rookies have to gain weight to match up with bigger and stronger players at the next level. Williamson, who looked out of shape in his brief appearance at Las Vegas summer league, probably needs to drop a few pounds. Either way, his strength and finishing ability will be a problem for many of the combo forwards who have to box him out. Just ask Kevin Knox. And he combines that brute force with incredible skill for a player of his size: He can put the ball on the floor, drive through traffic, and make plays on the move.

But even though Zion can handle the ball, he won’t get many touches next season. He may end up as the fourth or fifth option in the starting lineup. Holiday (21.2 points per game), Ingram (18.3), and Redick (18.1) are all coming off the highest-scoring seasons of their careers. Favors will need opportunities too. The former Jazz big man is entering his 10th NBA season, yet is just 28 years old. He should be a lot better now that he’s no longer playing out of position as a power forward next to Rudy Gobert in Utah.

Playing next to so many quality veterans means that Williamson won’t have many plays run for him. He will need to create a lot of his offense off his own energy, whether it’s cutting off the ball, crashing the offensive glass, or running the floor. The good news for the Pelicans is that he won’t have to adjust to such a limited role in the offense. He had to do the same thing at Duke, where he averaged 22.6 points on 68 percent shooting, 8.9 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game.

One of the most amazing things about Zion’s superhuman freshman season is that he did it while being used primarily as an energy big man. These were his most frequent types of offensive possessions last season (numbers via Synergy Sports):

How Zion Got His Buckets at Duke

Play Type Percentage of His Offense NCAA percentile
Play Type Percentage of His Offense NCAA percentile
Transition 16.8 92nd
Spot-up 16.5 47th
Cut 15.8 85th
ORB 14.6 97th
Post-up 13.2 99th

Everything at Duke ran through RJ Barrett, the no. 3 pick in this year’s draft. Barrett wasn’t just the first option—he was the second and third, too. The Blue Devils also had Cam Reddish, the no. 10 pick, and Tre Jones, a playmaking guard who often played with the ball in his hands. There were a lot of possessions where Zion was an afterthought who moved off the ball to occupy his defender. Instead of moping, he made the most out of the opportunities he did get.

The key to Zion’s success was his basketball IQ, the most underrated part of his game. Williamson is a smart player who knows how to play within himself. He rarely forced the issue in college, despite being the best player on the floor. He moved the ball, made the extra pass, and didn’t try to score over double-teams. You don’t set NCAA records for efficiency on 2-point field goals (74.7 percent on 11 attempts per game) with great physical tools alone. You also have to know how to use them.

Those skills will serve Zion well at the next level, where he will play with more talented teammates who will make the game easier for him. He didn’t have any shooting around him at Duke, which was no. 327 in the country in 3-point percentage (30.8) last season. Zion didn’t have much space to operate inside, or perimeter players to kick the ball out to. Holiday (career 35.5 percent from 3 on 3.5 attempts per game) and Redick (career 41.3 percent on 4.9 attempts per game) are more consistent shooters than anyone he played with last season.

The Pelicans will still have some spacing issues, though. Outside shooting is the biggest hole in Zion’s game, and neither Ingram (33 percent from 3 on 1.8 attempts per game) nor Favors (21.8 percent on 1.0 attempt per game) can stretch the defense. New Orleans head coach Alvin Gentry may need to stagger his lineups to keep at least some of his bench shooters (E’Twaun Moore, Josh Hart, Darius Miller, and Nicolò Melli) on the floor for most of the game. Melli, a 28-year-old whom the Pelicans signed out of the EuroLeague, could end up with a big role. He’s their only big man who can shoot 3s.

One thing to watch is how much Gentry will play Zion in smaller lineups with Melli or Miller at the 4. He could terrorize defenses rolling to the rim in a completely spread floor, but it would expose him to a lot of physical pounding against bigger defenders. The Pelicans have also committed a lot of resources to the center position. Favors ($16.9 million) is the second-highest-paid player on their roster, and they just used the no. 8 pick on Jaxson Hayes, a more traditional rim-running 5 who had a strong showing in Vegas.

No matter what lineups Gentry uses, the key for New Orleans next season will be committing to defense. Getting stops will allow the team to get out in transition, where they can take advantage of their athleticism instead of grinding out possessions in the half court against defenses that pack the paint and dare them to shoot. They have played at one of the fastest paces in the league under Gentry, which should have the additional benefit of forcing Zion to get into better shape.

The Pelicans have the pieces to be a great defense, despite being tied for 22nd in the league last season. They turned over almost their entire roster and brought in assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who masterminded an elite defense in Houston. They have a cornerstone on the perimeter in Holiday, an All-Defensive Team point guard, and at the rim in Favors, a key cog in a dominant defense in Utah, as well as length and athleticism at every position on the floor.

That side of the ball is where Zion may actually help them the most. He was one of the backbones of the no. 8 defense in the country at Duke. Williamson is an active help-side defender with good instincts who averaged 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game in college. He consistently made the right rotation and covered for his teammates as a freshman. Most young big men with elite physical tools tend to coast on defense. Julius Randle, the player Zion is replacing as the starting power forward, is a perfect example. Randle averaged 0.5 steals and 0.8 blocks per game in his one season in college, and has never been much of a defender in the NBA. Zion should be a significant defensive upgrade over Randle. He’s a switchable defender who should be a rock in the paint, and fast enough to at least be credible on the perimeter.

Williamson could have a rookie season similar to the one Shai Gilgeous-Alexander just had with the Clippers. SGA was Los Angeles’s sixth-leading scorer last season (10.8 points per game on 47.6 percent shooting), but he found other ways to help the team. He was efficient with his shots, he moved the ball, and he played good defense. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers couldn’t keep him off the floor: Gilgeous-Alexander started 73 of 82 games in the regular season and averaging 28.8 minutes per game in the postseason. Zion has shown both the ability and the mind-set to do something similar.

Williamson landed in the perfect situation in the NBA. He won’t be asked to do too much too soon, and will be able to grow into a bigger role on a good team over the course of his rookie contract. Williamson can pick and choose his spots next season, taking advantage of the defensive attention that his teammates draw and hunting for his own shot only when he has a mismatch and a lane to the basket.

Zion, who turned 19 in July, will be one of the youngest starters in the NBA this coming season. To start his career, he can play like the only freshman on the varsity team in high school: surrounded by older players who will allow him to play primarily through instinct. Just like at Duke, we may get only a few glimpses of the player that Zion could be in a few years. There is plenty of time for him to become a superstar. For now, he can focus on being a star within his role.