Areas Where Zion Williamson Could Struggle During Rookie Season

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterOctober 15, 2019

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz in New Orleans, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman)
Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

The perfect NBA prospect doesn't exist, despite what Zion Williamson has accomplished through college and the preseason. Even he is bound to have some trouble, at least before he turns 20 next July or enters his prime years from now.

The weakness section of his scouting report wasn't completely blank out of Duke. And moving from the NCAA to the pros will call for certain adjustments that are difficult to make overnight. 

The New Orleans Pelicans' No. 1 pick remains a heavy Rookie of the Year favorite, as well as a potential All-Star candidate during his first NBA season. But that doesn't mean he won't have areas to improve throughout his early development. 



Offense will come faster to Williamson than defense, regardless of how impressive his defensive stats may end up looking. He's always been able to rely on his spectacular physical abilities, and he still can when making plays on the ball or recoveries. 

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But building his defensive IQ will take time, and New Orleans' coaches will need to work with him on cleaning up a few habits.


Williamson's quickness, leaping ability and motor create massive defensive playmaking potential. The idea of jumping a passing lane or pinning a shot on the backboard clearly excites him—sometimes too much. 

Dating back to his first few games at Duke, Williamson has displayed a tendency to gamble. He can't always resist the urge to make the steal at half court that would result in a fast-break dunk the other way. 

He won't win as many of those as he did at Duke, and the Pelicans' team defense will pay for his lost gambles.

Against the Chicago Bulls below, Williamson was late to recognize the screen coming from Lauri Markkanen. Instead of retreating to cut off Thaddeus Young's driving angle, he made a poor poke-away attempt and missed, forcing his movement to stall and allowing Porter to turn the corner easily:

Here's another example of Williamson trying to make up for being late to anticipate a screen by lunging for a steal. He missed and was taken out of the play, giving the Bulls the two-on-one advantage:

Guarding Young but also trying to protect the rim, Williamson unnecessarily allowed himself to get sucked into the lane on a Coby White drive. Despite Jahlil Okafor being positioned to challenge White, Williamson went for the highlight-reel weak-side rejection, leaving his feet and allowing Young a wide-open catch-and-shoot three in the corner:

This is just another example of Williamson gambling, overshooting the steal attempt and giving Luke Kornet the freedom to make an unpressured pass to Markkanen for the easy finish:


NBA scorers are a lot sharper with their screens, flares and cuts, and Williamson figures to have some trouble staying attached off the ball. 

Guarding Markkanen, one of the league's premier shooting bigs, he allowed himself to get screened and turned around. For an instant before the pop-out three, Markkanen was looking at the back of Williamson's head. It's an action he wasn't used to defending in college since not many 7-footers could shoot off screens:

Below, he's forced into pick-and-roll coverage with his man (Young) coming over to screen Lonzo Ball for White. Maybe the plan was not to switch, but Williamson clearly didn't have a good awareness of what was around him. Otherwise, he would have at least stunted at White or hedged to slow him down and give Ball time to recover since there was a free driving lane for White to dribble through uncontested:

Williamson lost his man multiple times against the Bulls, including here on a backdoor cut when the rookie overplayed Young with poor positioning:

Switched onto Dejounte Murray in the game against the San Antonio Spurs, Williamson attempted to apply pressure around the arc, ignoring the scouting report that tells you Murray is a dangerous driver and poor shooter. It looked like an example of Williamson trying to showcase his lateral quickness, only for him to find out that starting NBA point guards have another gear of blow-by burst: 

He still projects as an effective switching big, but he'll have to learn how to pick his spots better, knowing when to play up versus dropping back a step. 

It will take time for Williamson to figure out what type of coverages and gambles his athleticism can let him get away with. He'll definitely need time for his defensive IQ to catch the quick-twitch movements he's always relied on for defending. 

Outside Touch

Williamson won't need a jump shot to average 20 points per game. But adding one would unlock an even scarier level of scoring potential. And until he shows he can make shots outside the paint, teams will play far off him to take away the drive.

Three-Pointers and Free Throws

Though he was capable in college with 24 threes in 33 games (33.8 percent), Williamson does not project as a regular three-point threat early in his NBA career.

He'll give New Orleans the occasional made triple in rhythm, as he did last week against the Utah Jazz, but he doesn't have the touch to offer any consistency from that range.

On the above air ball, the rookie displayed a lot of upper body and arms in his shot without enough bend or legs. It resembled a person shooting a tennis ball. He didn't have great control or command, particularly after some hesitation and overthinking. 

A 64.0 percent free-throw shooter in college, Williamson also figures to leave points at the line. And NBA opponents won't want to be dunked on by a 19-year-old and thrown into the viral highlights he regularly creates. 

He's going to spend a lot of time at the stripe, and at least in the short term, he'll likely continue converting between 60 and 69 percent of his opportunities. Through four preseason games, Williamson is 22-of-32 (68.8 percent). 


With his signature in-and-out dribble, spin move and explosiveness, Williamson can still catch the ball outside the paint and slice through gaps to score. But opposing coaches will emphasize closing those gaps and forcing him to pick up his dribble short of the lane because he doesn't have a pull-up game:

He shot 2-of-12 on dribble jumpers throughout his entire freshman season, per Synergy Sports.

Williamson still leans more on athleticism and power over skill for creating his own shot in the half court. It will catch up to him at certain points throughout the season, particularly as teams receive more film on his tendencies. 

They'll find out he favors his left hand significantly on finishes and post-ups. In college, he was 2-of-5 turning over his left shoulder and 20-of-28 turning over his right. 

So far in the preseason, his ball-handling skill does look improved on drives. He's changing direction off newer and sharper moves. But when he's playing the 4 without the ability to shoot off the dribble, he could have difficulty creating his own shot against a set defense.


Potential for Improvement

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Nothing has changed regarding Williamson's defensive potential, which was a major selling point on his scouting profile before the draft. It's just going to take a while for it to blossom.

Still a teenager, he has a strong reputation for his work ethic and love for the game. Even though there could be a 2019-20 lowlight reel of mistakes, he remains a great bet to improve his defensive discipline and reads.

Offensively, his spot-up shooting and right hand are fixable. He's less likely to become a scorer who goes to the pull-up or step-back jumper. However, there is also a high probability there will be an easier way for him to score, so he won't need those lower-percentage shots. 

But after he spends enough time in the league, he could become a respectable catch-and-shoot weapon, as well as a threat to attack and convert from both sides of the rim. 

Plus, even a version of Williamson with defensive and shooting weaknesses can still be one of the NBA's top players.


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