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Zion Is Already Incomparable, and More First Impressions From the Phenom’s Debut Run

The Pelicans rookie has been worth the wait. Here are the four ways he’s dominated in his first four games, along with two weaknesses to keep an eye on as New Orleans chases a playoff berth.

Scott Laven/Getty Images

The start of Zion Williamson’s NBA career hasn’t come easy. After playing in four preseason games, the no. 1 pick underwent knee surgery, then missed more than half of the regular season recovering. Upon his return to the court, he was subjected to a strict minutes limit. The 19-year-old is also learning the league as its fourth-youngest player—and second-youngest rotation player, with only Detroit’s Sekou Doumbouya checking in younger.

Yet Williamson, a phenomenal leaper, has cleared these hurdles with ease in his first four games and 96 minutes of on-court NBA action. In his debut, he scored 17 consecutive Pelicans points in a three-minute, eight-second span. Among all players—not just rookies—with a 25 percent usage rate or higher this season, Williamson ranks first in effective field goal percentage and second in true shooting percentage, close behind Karl-Anthony Towns.

If those early statistical indicators and Zion’s early highlights aren’t enough, here are five first impressions for the New Orleans rookie.

1. His rookie numbers are incomparable.

Earlier this month, as a way to analyze the first half of rookies’ seasons, I calculated similarity scores for every current rookie compared to every previous qualifying rookie this century. Williamson was excluded, however, because he hadn’t played a game yet.

Now we can see the early shape of Zion’s career—and as befits a player with his physique, said shape is unfamiliar. The way this comparison tool works is that the similarity scores themselves don’t matter much except in relative terms: The closer to zero, the more similar the two players are. Folding in both his preseason and regular-season numbers to increase the sample size, Zion doesn’t have any close comps at all.

This chart shows the closest comp and accompanying similarity score for every rookie in last year’s lottery (except Romeo Langford, who’s barely played), plus Brandon Clarke, whom I highlighted earlier this month as the most singular rookie in the class. Less playing time is a contributing factor to Zion’s large gap, but with the numbers laid out in this fashion, it’s easy to see his uniqueness. Even Luka Doncic, last season’s most superlative rookie, posted a closest-comp distance of “only” 9.38.

2019 Draft Class Comps

Rookie Closest Comp Similarity Score
Rookie Closest Comp Similarity Score
Tyler Herro Buddy Hield 0.43
De'Andre Hunter Frank Jackson 0.66
Cam Reddish DerMarr Johnson 0.82
Darius Garland Jimmer Fredette 0.86
Jarrett Culver Stanley Johnson 1.10
Cameron Johnson Davis Bertans 1.21
RJ Barrett Metta World Peace 1.34
PJ Washington Jaylen Brown 1.38
Coby White J.R. Smith 1.52
Jaxson Hayes Mason Plumlee 1.85
Rui Hachimura Omri Casspi 2.41
Ja Morant Steve Francis 2.75
Brandon Clarke John Collins 5.93
Zion Williamson (with preseason) Not worth noting 14.12

Why is Zion so far apart from any and all predecessors? Compared to other rookies this century, his combined regular and preseason numbers place him no. 1 in points per 75 possessions, no. 2 in true shooting percentage, and also near the top in usage and free throw rate. He has an unmatched combination of volume and efficiency—and after his similarly prolific college campaign, it’s unlikely his NBA results are a fluke.

And though his career is still young, it’s not too early to begin to draw long-term conclusions about his career. A rookie’s statistical performance in his first 10 games is reasonably predictive of his future success, and Zion has had one of the best statistical starts for any rookie in the lottery era. That performance might dip between games 4 and 10, of course, but it also might tick up as Zion sheds his minutes limits and gains more playing time.

2. His shot chart is hyperefficient.

One reason for Williamson’s outrageous efficiency is the concentration of his shots in prime scoring areas. Out of his 49 shot attempts, he’s released 35 (71 percent) in the restricted area. Another seven have come from farther back in the paint, with six more from 3-point range. That leaves just one shot attempt out of 49 from the inefficient midrange area. His shot chart is a huddle at the rim and a barren wasteland between the paint and 3-point line.

Williamson is finishing all those close looks at a prolific pace. He’s 25-for-35 in the restricted area, a percentage that places him in the range of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, and other elite finishers. Only Giannis and Montrezl Harrell make more shots per game at the rim.

Zion won’t continue to can two-thirds of his 3-point tries (more on his shooting later), and his overall numbers are bound to drop somewhat if only because his effective field goal percentage is unprecedented for a player with such a high usage rate. But as long as he keeps directing his damage near the basket—where even two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year Gobert struggles to slow the rookie dynamo—he’ll remain one of the league’s most potent scorers.

3. His point differential is spectacular.

For everyone hoping—and perhaps expecting—Williamson to exert a transformative effect on the Pelicans’ results, here is the most compelling statistic thus far: With Williamson on the court, New Orleans has outscored its opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions. Derrick Favors (2.2 net rating), another big man who has missed games and played limited minutes, is the only other Pelican on the plus side of the ledger this season.

Net rating comes with a host of caveats, particularly in Williamson’s sample size (though he did post a net rating of plus-12.5 in the preseason, too). The composition of lineups matters, as do luck on open 3-point attempts and other factors that contribute a few points here, a few points there. But if the prior was that Williamson would make New Orleans much better by virtue of his sheer presence on the court, the early evidence provides quite the confirmation.

4. His diverse talents give the Pelicans options.

One of the secondary effects of Williamson’s presence is the flexibility he affords his team. So vast is his skill set that the Pelicans aren’t hemmed in to one particular style or lineup configuration to try to get their celebrated rookie going. Instead, New Orleans is finding all sorts of ways to involve Williamson in the offense, with varied play calls and sets. He is a threat at all times to grab the ball and score.

Zion Williamson’s Offensive Distribution

Play Type Percentage of Plays
Play Type Percentage of Plays
Putback 17.9%
Post 16.4%
P&R Roll 14.9%
Transition 14.9%
Cut 13.4%
Spot Up 11.9%
Other 10.4%

Some questions still remain about the Pelicans’ lineup construction. A group with Williamson plus another nonshooting big man could cramp offensive spacing, but New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry hasn’t been afraid to experiment with his new player’s usage. Zion has split his time roughly evenly between playing with another center and playing as the primary big.

Slicing small samples even smaller is a dangerous enterprise; still, New Orleans has been superb with Zion as the lone big (plus-20.5 net rating, per with more mixed results when he shares the floor with another (plus-15.5 rating with Favors, minus-34.6 with Hayes). Those details don’t matter yet because the sample is so small, but if Williamson proves able to play in both circumstances, New Orleans would enjoy a world of possibilities. It could play bigger or smaller, slower or faster, with a more traditional structure or with four shooters around an elite finisher in the middle. (This latter option is tantalizing, replicating Milwaukee’s structure with Zion in the Giannis spot.) The Pelicans could morph to match the game situation or opponent, all because of Williamson’s maintained production amid fluid usage.

5. His weaknesses are few and far between.

Aside from his obvious injury concern, the thorns on Zion’s early bloom are quite minor. Given his physicality and positioning on offense, he’s unsurprisingly reaching the free throw line a lot—a positive—but he struggles once he’s there. His unsightly 6-for-17 line likely isn’t a predictor of long-term Drummondesque futility, however.

Williamson was a 64 percent free throw shooter in college (still a poor number, but nearly twice as good as his current NBA mark). And his 11 misses so far have mostly been on line: Eight bounced short, two bounced long, and only one missed to the side. These are solvable problems, even if Williamson’s continued free throw troubles and sidewinder shooting motion means he doesn’t profile as a knockdown 3-point shooter. His 4-for-4 debut from range is an anomaly.

His second preliminary concern is a lack of passing zest. Perhaps because it’s so early in his career, or perhaps because he plays with more established ball handlers like Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball, Zion has yet to do much creation with the ball in his hands. According to Synergy tracking, he’s used just two possessions as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll (plus one more in which he passed out of a pick-and-roll), and he hasn’t finished via a single isolation play.

Williamson’s turnover tally outstrips his assists, 10-to-6, which isn’t unusual for a young (or veteran, frankly) big man but still leaves room for wanting. Here, again, is space for some optimism: Zion displayed encouraging flashes when given the opportunity to act as a point forward in college, and his court vision allows him to zip passes before his target breaks open.

So even Zion’s few weaknesses are eminently fixable. It’s almost unfair. Even with those flaws, he already looks like a superstar.