Something auspiciously odd happened to the New Orleans Pelicans last season. After a dispiriting 1-12 start turned into a 36-46 overall record, the Pelicans enjoyed a shocking late-season playoff push—that included two play-in wins and a competitive first-round series against the top-seeded Suns—without their 21-year-old franchise centerpiece logging a single second.
Thriving so far ahead of schedule is a rare and extremely advantageous place for a team to be, especially when said centerpiece is Zion Williamson, an innovative, singularly agile bruiser who missed the entire 2021-22 season with a fractured foot.
It’s early, but the Pelicans already look like a team that’s leveled up without losing any of last season’s momentum; they’re seemingly ready to win at the highest level, with more than enough firepower, a deep bench, and enough tradable assets to improve what’s already a playoff-caliber roster. But there’s a central question about this team that also doubles as one of the most pivotal long-term variables in the entire league: What is Zion on defense?
Can the indomitable physical gifts that make him an unstoppable scorer be channeled with equal determination on the other end? Or will he be a turnstile who lollygags on the weak side? New Orleans’s true ceiling lies in the answer. The Pelicans can go only so far if opponents see Zion—who is big and strong but also just 6-foot-6 with a wingspan that’s the same length as Norman Powell’s—as a liability on defense.
Mismatch hunting has become an annual tradition in the NBA playoffs. One-dimensional players are mercilessly hunted in ball screens over and over again until their coach has to either hide them, make a substitution, or cross their fingers and hope offensive contributions neutralize the damage. (See: Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Chris Paul, and Donovan Mitchell last postseason.)
If teams go out of their way to target Zion, the ripple effects could spell doom for the Pelicans. But if his defense becomes more a feature than a bug, where competency with occasional flashes of disruption is the expectation, then the Pelicans could become a bona fide championship contender.
It’s a consequential topic that could be the difference between the Pelicans being a fun team or a scary one. For example: Can Pels head coach Willie Green utilize Williamson as a small-ball 5 in lineups that maximize his team’s spacing and make it easier for him to pulverize wider driving lanes?
There was more urgency to play Zion at the 5 a couple of years ago, when his lacking jumper made it seem like New Orleans had to either complement him with a big who could protect the rim and shoot 3s or pray Zion could anchor defenses as a center. (Those small-ball groups were a disaster in a small sample size.)
No one will confuse the Pelicans with the 2017 Warriors but they are no longer desperate for space when Williamson is at the 4. CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram (two tough shot makers who can draw help in their sleep) loosen things up. Trey Murphy III is a menace from deep. Former Pelicans center Steven Adams makes current Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas look like Dirk Nowitzki. Devonte’ Graham and Jose Alvarado can’t be ignored. Herb Jones and Larry Nance Jr. provide a dynamic two-way versatility that elevates whatever unit they’re in, be it small, traditional, or jumbo-sized.
All this means Zion at the 5 is more of a luxury than a requirement, which lessens any pressure he’d feel as the last line of defense. (That said: Zion, Ingram, McCollum, Jones, and Murphy III could be chili pepper spicy.) But even when the Pelicans are showing a more traditional look, as they will most often, Williamson’s defense is still critical.
New Orleans always has been better on defense with Zion on the court than off it, but that doesn’t mean it was actually good when he played. Two years ago, New Orleans was routinely gutted in transition and unimpressive in the half court. And because of Zion’s struggles and a pack-the-paint scheme he was asked to function within, the Pelicans were also carved up behind the arc, ranking in the bottom third in both opposing 3-point frequency and opposing 3-point accuracy above the break.
Not all of this should be put on Williamson—who before entering the league went out of his way to point out how much he cares about defense—but when he was last healthy enough to regularly play, effort and attentiveness left much to be desired. “I’m being honest with you,” former Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy said back in February 2021. “I don’t know how many of our guys really have a defensive mentality.” A month later, little changed. “One of our problems is our guys will beat themselves up on missing shots, missing free throws,” Van Gundy said. “But the defensive stuff doesn’t get to them the same way. It doesn’t bother them the same way.”
According to Second Spectrum, Pascal Siakam and RJ Barrett were the only two players during the 2020-21 season who averaged more closeouts per game than Williamson, who didn’t always compete with, shall we say, the right amount of enthusiasm when making them.
Textbook YMCA closeout by Zion right here. pic.twitter.com/GsEe75UmdI— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) January 3, 2021
Fast-forward to the present day, when Zion is easing his way back from a serious foot injury (also: a hip contusion suffered last week against the Jazz) and the Pelicans are bullish on what he can be when it’s time to get stops. Teammates and coaches see a tantalizing upside, citing his shot-blocking ability and frightening paint presence. Highlight plays will be a common occurrence.
“You don’t see it, especially with a guy his size, getting off the floor as quick as he does, moving around on the court as fast as he does. I think it’s going to be super important for our defense as the season goes along,” Jones says. “And his IQ is off the charts. I think he sees some actions, some plays, steps ahead, and times it up right to make the defensive plays.”
The Pelicans also recognize Zion has a long way to go before he can fully realize his defensive potential, particularly in space. According to Pelicans assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon—a Hall of Famer whom Zion often calls his big sister—the no. 1 thing he needs to improve is his on-ball defense. To get there, New Orleans has worked on his balance and on studying different assignments and knowing how to deal with myriad player types, whether that involves switching screens or matching up with someone else’s man in transition.
“He’s incredibly quick, fast, moves his feet very, very well. He understands angles,” Weatherspoon says. “But his base is what we’re working on, to be able to defend anywhere on the floor, especially the perimeter. If you’re guarding the ball, we want you to keep that ball in front of you, be able to contain the ball … and not allow it to get down into the painted area where now it’s disrupted our defense. Because when you’re on ball, you’re in the fire. So you want to make sure that you’re putting out the fire first and not allowing it to get down into the teeth of our defense.”
This is a work in progress. Two years ago, when Zion directly defended isolation plays on which the ball handler passed or shot, New Orleans allowed 1.26 points per possession, according to Second Spectrum. That ranked 66th out of 72 players who defended at least 100 isolation plays. Through three games this season, the results have been a mix of evident progress and occasional mistakes, whether he’s committing a costly touch foul or giving up a blowby.
In the clip below, Patty Mills does a good job of clearing Valanciunas out of the paint by setting a down screen, forcing an early switch, and then scrambling to the strong-side corner. From there it’s on Zion to keep Royce O’Neale at bay. He positions his feet to prevent a middle drive and gets close enough to take away the 3, but O’Neale still turns him into a houseplant.
After the game, when asked about his defense, Williamson said “I don’t want to sit up here and say I think I played decent on defense because the film can tell all.” A couple of games later, Zion was roasted off the bounce by [massages temples] Kelly Olynyk:
Zion’s defense needs to tighten up on sequences like the next two, when an antsy Ingram helps a beat too early off of Lauri Markkanen, sensing that Mike Conley is going to drive right past his teammate.
And then here’s Williamson letting Jordan Clarkson turn the corner off a high screen. Havoc ensues. (The Pelicans went on a 19-3 run after Williamson was sidelined midway through the fourth quarter. Given how he played defense before that, this wasn’t a coincidence.)
What makes some of the results seen above so frustrating is the fact that we know Williamson can get low, swivel his hips, and force difficult shots. We just haven’t seen it consistently. It’s the type of difference that can change games.
Sometimes he’ll ball-watch and get beaten on a back cut. But Zion’s promise as a help defender is significant, too. The Hornets get a corner 3 on this play below, but that outcome doesn’t matter when weighed against the multiple efforts made by Zion, first stopping Mason Plumlee in the paint and then chasing out to contest P.J. Washington.
The ceiling here is unknown. Zion shoulders a major offensive responsibility and takes a beating fulfilling it. Health and fatigue will be concerns until he can prove they shouldn’t be anymore. When considering his shortcomings in the grander scheme of New Orleans’s ultimate potential, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t need to make an All-Defensive team.
Having tenacious teammates like Jones, Nance Jr., Alvarado, Naji Marshall, and even rookie wing Dyson Daniels will help. The Pelicans just need Zion to be dependable on defense. There’s optimism he can get there and maybe even be much more. But that player, understandably, isn’t there right now. Weatherspoon doesn’t want to let the current version of Zion off the hook, either. For all the ways he dominates with the ball in his hands, there’s so much unrealized talent that can be applied to the other end.
“The [player] that you will always look at, especially for him, is Draymond. He’s really disruptive defensively,” she says. “And Zion has that ability to do the very same thing.”
The Pelicans can go far this season. Talk of a championship isn’t outlandish right now. But it will eventually look foolish if Williamson’s defensive impact can’t hold a candle to the steady brilliance he provides with the ball in his hands.