Pelicans unleashed Zion Williamson as a ball handler and it's glorious

Feb 10, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) dribbles the ball against the Chicago Bulls during the third quarter at the United Center. Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Pelicans unleashed Zion Williamson as a ball handler and it's glorious


Pelicans unleashed Zion Williamson as a ball handler and it's glorious

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New Orleans Pelicans star Zion Williamson has been exploding on the scene of late and is one of the hottest players in basketball right now.

Williamson has eclipsed 30 points in five different games since Jan. 17 and looks the part of someone coming into his own powers. Everyone knows that the Pelicans forward is a hyperathletic and supernatural force near the rim. He is dominant when he is using his power to post-up his defenders or when using his speed when finishing on the break while in transition.

But there were questions about whether or not Williamson would be able to graduate into more on-ball actions. However, New Orleans executive David Griffin has said that this would eventually become a primary focus (via CBS Sports):

“He can be used as a ball-handler. People, I think, unfairly look at him as a big, and being limited to being a 4/5. When we drafted Zion, the thing that excited us the most is the position-less nature of his game … He’s going to be on the handle.”

Of course, anyone playing with the rock in the modern NBA will have to be adept at operating a screen-and-roll offense.

According to Synergy, including his passes, Williamson completed a total of 29 possessions as the ball handler in pick-and-roll sets while playing at Duke. That accounted for just 4.5 percent of his total possessions during his one-and-done campaign, and while that was a small sample size, the results were promising.

He averaged 1.27 points per possession when finishing as a ball-handler in pick-and-roll actions, which actually ranked in the 99th percentile among all D1 players. Remember, his mother told USA TODAY that Williamson used to be a pass-first point guard.

As one scout told draft analyst Jonathan Wasserman back in 2019, this would be crucial for his evolution from a good player to a great player (via Bleacher Report):

“[He is an] impressive ball-handler for his size. Can be a grab-and-go guy like Ben Simmons. Good passer. Hope to see him in more pick-and-roll ball-handling situations [in the NBA].”

These looks, however, were not executed very often during his rookie season. Unfortunately, meanwhile, the results were ar less efficient than what we had seen when he was a freshman.

When including his passes, per Synergy, only 2.0 percent of his possessions last season were handling ball-screens. Williamson was 2-for-7 (28.6 percent) on these looks, recording two turnovers but was not able to convert an assist.

Last week, ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote that New Orleans ran “only two ball screens per 100 possessions” during the first month of the season. But that is starting to change, quickly and dramatically.

As recently noted by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz, the Pelicans have incorporated more pick-and-rolls with Williamson. Arnovitz elaborated on what he has noticed about this development (via Lowe Post):

“When I pulled up ball-handler, Zion, pick-and-roll – like, two-thirds of them have come within the last ten to twelve days, right? They weren’t really doing that. And if you had these conversations three weeks ago, the answer is: ‘Well, they’re not really doing that, he’s not really the ball handler, they don’t really run that. Let’s talk about him as a screener.'”

The numbers provide even more context to this adjustment for the Pelicans.

When including his passes, Williamson has increased his ball-screen frequency to 13.7 percent in 2020-21. He is averaging 1.17 points per possession as the ball handler in pick-and-roll sets, per Synergy, which currently ranks fourth-best (minimum: 40 possessions) in the NBA.

We think of Williamson as a high-flying dunking sensation, who is able to make an impact cutting and slashing, but his evolvution into an efficient ballhandler is an incredible step to take during his second professional season.

He has mostly shown off his skill set rejecting the screen, dribbling off the pick into open space to attack the basket.

You can watch how that unfolds in games during this conversion against the Memphis Grizzlies, where Williamson ran an inverted pick-and-roll with JJ Redick as the screener.

In fact, according to ESPN’s Andrew Lopez, Redick reportedly set 10 picks for Williamson during the game against Memphis. It is a deadly play for their opponents because Redick is such a massive threat to pop on the perimeter.

New Orleans, meanwhile, will also run small-big pick-and-rolls with Lonzo Ball setting the screen (and flipping the angle) for Williamson.

When he is not going for the finish himself, he can use these looks to exploit mismatches and create easy looks for his teammates, as recently explained by his head coach Stan Van Gundy (via The Athletic):

“I think his trust in his teammates is very high and that allows him to make the plays willingly. He has that ability, he’s recognizing what teams are doing to him and making really, really solid plays. I only expect that to improve. As you move through Zion’s career, you’re going to see more and more of that from him as a primary ball-handler on the perimeter.”

Generally speaking, the forward has improved his ball-handling ability.

Williamson is no longer recording more turnovers than assists, which was perhaps his biggest offensive shortcoming in 2019-20.

He has reduced his lost ball turnovers from 1.38 per 100 possessions last season to nearly half as many (0.72) in 2020-21. Williamson has also added an additional assist per 100. He recorded a career-best seven assists on Jan. 29 against the Milwaukee Bucks and again on Feb. 9 against the Houston Rockets.

All things considered, Williamson is starting to look more and more like a superstar in the makings when playing with the rock in his hand.

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