You have to go back almost 30 years to find a comparison for Zion Williamson’s first month in the NBA. He’s the second rookie in history to average more than 20 points per game on better than 55 percent shooting. The other is Shaquille O’Neal.
The two have more in common than you would think. Williamson is essentially what would happen if you compressed prime Shaq into a 6-foot-6 frame.
The normal rules of basketball don’t apply when a player is that strong and explosive. Shaq was an elite player from day one. Zion is too. He isn’t adjusting to the NBA—the NBA is adjusting to him.
Look at what happens to Steven Adams on this play. At 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds, Adams is one of the biggest and most physical centers in the league. And he’s a smart defender who has read the scouting report. He knows Williamson wants to spin back to his left hand. He’s in the perfect position to swallow up his shot. It just doesn’t matter. Zion powers through him anyway:
Most teams have been guarding Zion with their center. But size alone can’t prevent him from getting to his spots. Look at how easily he moves Hassan Whiteside out of the way in this sequence:
It would be one thing if all Zion could do was play bully ball. But he has a lot of finesse in his game, too.
Shaq was the same way. The myth surrounding him was that he was just an unskilled Goliath, but there was much more nuance to him than that. He was a technician in the post with soft hands, quick feet, and great touch around the basket.
Both Zion and Shaq combine skill and physicality in a way that makes them almost unstoppable. They aren’t the same player. They are two players taking different paths to the same point.
It’s not as easy for Williamson to post up. The game has changed since Shaq’s prime, with defenses now able to run zone and keep more defenders in the paint. He’s also not as tall, so he can’t just plant himself in the middle of the paint, stick his hand in the air, and automatically create a passing angle. Zion has to move much more over the course of a possession than Shaq ever did. He runs into post-ups and sets up from farther away on the floor.
What separates Zion even more from Shaq is that he can also create shots off the dribble. He doesn’t always need someone else to feed him the ball inside. He can get it there himself. He’s not an elite ball handler—he struggles to control it when splitting double-teams and slithering through tight spaces. But he’s good enough to be able to turn drives into post-ups. This play starts with Zion almost 20 feet from the basket. Then he faces up the defender and dribbles four times. It’s no different than if he had posted up at 5 feet:
That ability allows him to weaponize his strength in a new way. Williamson has to be more opportunistic about hunting post-ups than Shaq. But the result is the same once he gets there. There’s not much the defense can do when a player like that has one man between him and the rim.
That’s where you really see the similarities between the two. They both have the width to pin defenders on their back. The quickness to spin the other way if they get overplayed to one side. The explosiveness to get off the ground before anyone else. The hands to vacuum up any ball in the vicinity. The touch to make any shot that lands on the rim. The quick second jump to go back up again on the rare shots they do miss.
Zion has the shot profile of a center who does nothing but catch lobs. He takes 74.6 percent of his shots within 3 feet of the rim and shoots 68.9 percent on those attempts. Yet he actually creates most of them himself.
The defense almost has to foul him. His free throw attempt rate (.519) as a rookie is right behind Shaq’s first-year mark (.553), which means that both players took more than half as many free throw attempts as field goal attempts. The encouraging sign is that Zion is already a better shooter. His free throw percentage (60.6) is significantly higher than Shaq’s career mark (52.7) and he has even flashed the ability to make 3s.
The scary part is that he still has a lot of room to get better. He can go only one way right now. Zion always gets to his left hand. The only thing that changes is which side of the court he’s on. Most of his moves look the same.
If he’s on the right side, he’s going to the middle of the lane:
If he’s on the left, he’s getting to the baseline:
He hasn’t needed a countermove because he already has the footwork to set up his defenders and get himself in the right position to score, as well as the patience to pass the ball out to try again when he can’t.
That patience is a huge part of what makes him so special. Zion is the rare young player who doesn’t force the action. He didn’t need to adjust to the speed of the NBA game. He already has a great feel for where the other nine players on the court are and what they are doing.
Zion couldn’t be the next Shaq if he couldn’t pick apart double-teams. That was an underrated aspect of his predecessor’s game. Shaq was able to find the open man anywhere on the floor. Zion can do the same thing. Defenses have started making adjustments. They are sitting on his left hand and doubling him whenever he spins in that direction. But Williamson has an answer for that, too. Look at some of the passes that he has made in his first few weeks:
His passing numbers have been trending up. He averaged 1.7 assists and 2.3 turnovers in his first six games and 2.8 assists and 2.5 turnovers over his past six. The assist numbers should only keep growing as his teammates get more comfortable playing around him and trusting him with the ball.
The initial plan in New Orleans was for Zion to be in more of a complementary role. Pelicans exec David Griffin even compared him to Draymond Green this summer. That narrative has gone out the window. Williamson is so dominant that it would be crazy for the offense not to run through him. Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday are All-Star-caliber players, but they can’t change the game like Zion. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry was blunt after a loss to the Rockets a few weeks ago:
“We didn’t execute and we didn’t do what we were supposed to do,” Gentry said. “Zion can’t go four minutes without touching the basketball and that’s on me. That’s something that I’ve got to make sure that will never happen again. So I take responsibility for that. And if we’re not gonna give it to him and not gonna execute, then we gotta have different people in the game. That’s on me also.”
When asked if that was simply teammates learning how to play with Williamson in what was just his sixth NBA game, Gentry wasn’t buying it.
“Nah, you gotta throw him the damn basketball,” Gentry said.
Gentry sounded like one of Shaq’s old coaches. A player like that makes the game pretty simple. The first goal of any defense is to prevent someone from taking the ball to the rim and dunking it. That’s all Zion does. He leads the league in points per touch (.496) among players who have played at least 300 minutes.
It shouldn’t be possible for a 19-year-old to drag his team into the playoffs. But that is exactly what is happening. The Pelicans go from a net rating of plus-13.6 when Williamson is on the floor this season to minus-3.2 when he’s off.
New Orleans is still 3.5 games behind Memphis for the no. 8 seed, a half-game behind Portland and a half-game ahead of San Antonio. However, because the NBA stacked its schedule at the start of the season to get Zion on national TV as much as possible, the Pelicans have a much easier slate during the next two months. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 67 percent chance of making the playoffs, compared to 18 percent for the Blazers, 6 percent for the Grizzlies, and 4 percent for the Spurs.
If the Pelicans sneak in with the no. 8 seed, it would create a fascinating first-round clash against the Lakers. It could be another battle between the present and the future like in 2010, when Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden also made their playoff debuts against a title-favorite Lakers team.
New Orleans will be a force for a long time to come in the West. Look at what happened with Shaq. The Magic made their playoff debut in his second season and were in the NBA Finals by his third. A team built around a player who is that physically dominant can skip a lot of steps.
The biggest challenge will be keeping Zion on the court. The human body generally isn’t designed to handle the stress of that much weight moving so quickly and getting so far off the ground. He sprained his knee at Duke after blowing out his left shoe and has already had one knee surgery in the NBA.
Williamson still isn’t in great shape. There are times when he hobbles up and down the floor. He was lighter on his feet and more explosive in college than he is now.
Physical fitness was always the issue for Shaq. He refused to work out in the offseason and spent the first few months of the regular season playing his way into shape. He missed only five games in his first three seasons in the NBA before becoming more injury prone as he got heavier. Guys with their build can pack on weight easily. It wouldn’t take much for a 19-year-old who weighs 284 pounds to add another 50 in his 20s. Shaq was officially listed at 325. But he could spread that extra weight over a 7-foot-1 frame. Zion doesn’t have as much margin for error.
It has been a long time since we have seen anything like him. Shaq was born in 1972. Zion was born in 2000. The phrase “once in a generation” gets thrown around a lot. This time it’s true.
Statistics are current through Sunday’s games.