Zion Williamson is here to save the Pelicans, and along the way he just might save the low-post game, too. It’s a tall order; the past decade of NBA basketball has systematically undermined back-to-the-basket play, turning what was once the definitive means of running offense into more of a niche enterprise.
Implicit to the march of progress is the threat of being left behind. Industries change shape in ways that wipe out entire lines of employment. Technology evolves to make meaningless what once seemed essential. It wasn’t incompetence or conspiracy that moved basketball out of the post, but benevolent rule changes and advancing strategy. The game moved on. Once teams began to grapple with the idea that post-ups relied less on size than space—and defenses found the freedom within the rules to invade that space—the value proposition behind the entire sport changed. The idea of dumping the ball down low as an operating principle became so unwieldy as to be impractical.
For traditional big men, this era is a Darwinian turning point: adapt or die. Some stretched their range to become floor spacers. Others specialized in the pick-and-roll. Zion has shown another, unseen possibility: a distinctly modern form of post play, drawing on speed as much as strength.
Credit is due to Alvin Gentry, head coach of one of the fastest-paced teams in the league, for understanding the folly of slowing the game down to post up. In the current competitive environment, you run to post up—before the defense settles, the help is in place, and the shot clock becomes an issue. This is almost self-contradictory. Bruising centers aren’t typically able to beat the opposing team down the floor, but Williamson is an evolutionary exception. After contesting a 3, Zion can rumble out in transition, set up shop in the middle of the paint, and give his fast-breaking teammates an enormous, high-value target:
There’s just nothing a welterweight like Denver’s Gary Harris can do in that scenario. Most teams aren’t fully considering their own defensive mismatches while still on offense; forcing an opponent into a switch or a rotation is essentially the goal, seeing as it creates a new angle for the player with the ball to exploit. Yet if Williamson is the player switching or rotating, that could leave a helpless guard to grapple with a 285-pound rhinoceros running to the front of the rim. Part of what doomed old-fashioned post play was that it became so deliberate. Defenses could see what was coming, line up their strongest defender, and position their help before the ball ever made it to the block. Zion is starting many of his post-ups as the first man down the floor, all while the defense scrambles to get in front of the ball and attend to potential shooters. It’s barbecue chicken on the go.
Even play-tracking platforms like Synergy Sports don’t know what to make of this action. Is it a post-up? Is it a transition play? Clearly, it’s both—a variation on the kind of deep, early seal that centers have attempted for years, only in greater volume and to greater effect. What makes Zion so perfectly suited for this kind of play is how easily he establishes position. When you can snatch rebounds away from Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s not much trouble to lock away some smaller, slighter opponent. There’s just no getting around Zion; a defender would have to cover so much ground to make their way around a player of his size that a seal amounts to solitary confinement. Even in a pro league with some of the best athletes in the world, breadth can be a weapon. Fronting Zion outright only encourages the Pelicans to lob a pass to him over the top, where his incredible leaping ability gives him an almost unmissable catch radius.
Playing Zion’s post-ups from behind, however, assumes—wrongly—that a ragdoll defender has any real bearing over their outcome. Williamson is already one of the most prolific post players in the league and ranks sixth in free throw attempts per 36 minutes. Established veterans, unable to stop Zion from turning the corner or bodying his way to the basket, have begun hacking him out of resignation. (Fouling also isn’t a terrible proposition, considering that Williamson is making just 63 percent of his free throws.) Even a made basket on the other end offers little protection. New Orleans is so committed to running the floor that Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball will receive an inbound pass and fling an outlet to Williamson before the defense is in any position to stop him. If the angle isn’t quite there, Zion can segue easily into a more traditional post setup, or float out to the perimeter to screen and cut in the Pelicans’ normal flow. The initial break, the secondary break, and the half-court game blend together seamlessly to make New Orleans more efficient on offense than any other team in the league during Zion’s time on the floor.
Rather than attempt to go coast to coast, as Draymond Green or Bam Adebayo might, Williamson gives up the ball off the defensive rebound with the intent to get it back. It’s easier for Zion to get to his spot when he doesn’t have to babysit his wandering dribble; free of that burden, he brings old-school designs to life in cutting-edge style—like a Pontiac Fiero strapped to a rocket engine. With the right commitments, other bigs of more typical proportions can pull off some version of this same approach. Giannis dabbles in this already, though more often he drives the break himself. John Collins could stand to do more of this for the Hawks, or Deandre Ayton for the Suns. Post play, like the rest of the game, simply needed to evolve with the times.
Just nine games into his career, you can already see the underlying terror of Zion’s game. NBA coaches have tailored their defenses around his involvement and still wind up changing their approach as a game progresses. Williamson isn’t even in shape yet, and still he’ll beat defenders down the floor, and beat some of the best rebounders in the league to the ball—including on his own misses. Due to the attention Zion draws, an already elite marksman like JJ Redick can shoot 10 percentage points better from beyond the arc when the two share the floor. These are vital contributions for a Pelicans team vying for the playoffs, five games back of the eighth seed.
If the Pelicans make themselves into a serious contender in the coming years, opposing teams may have to start rostering players specifically to guard him. There’s just no other way to handle a player this big, this quick, and this smart. If Williamson’s early passing is any indication, even running double-teams at him will come with diminishing returns.
All of which is only heightened by the fact that Zion, in so many ways, looks the part of a wide-eyed rookie. What horrors might come when he tightens up his handle? What might he be capable of once he learns how to play professional-grade team defense? Considering that Zion has topped 30 minutes in only two of his games to date, how will teams hang once he starts putting in a full night’s work? The first wave of Zion’s impact is devastating enough. Pelicans opponents already can’t afford to switch, cross-match, or lose sight of him whenever a shot goes up. Worse is the reality check that comes at the end of a long night of scheming around the enormity of him. This week, Zion put up 31 points, nine rebounds, and five assists against the Blazers; it’s the easiest containing him will ever be.