Zion Williamson saves the Pelicans with one-of-a-kind greatness. “I’ve never seen anything like it”

NEW ORLEANS — Most big names in the NBA establish the qualities that make them better than everyone early in their careers. They all bring a skill or physical trait that separates them from the pack. Michael Jordan and LeBron James had unique athletic gifts. Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry were unstoppable shooters. Luka Doncic and Larry Bird are basketball savants who could take down any defense.

Zion Williamson is unlike any of them, or anyone else. But his path to greatness is starting to seem just as undeniable as it was to them.

Williamson’s spectacular performance in the Pelicans’ 119-118 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday night sums up what makes him unlike anything NBA fans have seen. He finished with a career-high 43 points (33 in the second half) on 14-of-21 shooting. He scored the final 14 points of the night for the Pels as they struggled against Minnesota late. He also went 14 of 19 from the free throw line.

As good as those numbers are, they don’t quite reflect her special night. He often looked like he was playing a different sport than everyone else on the pitch.

“He plays football, we play basketball,” Minnesota guard D’Angelo Russell said after the game. “We can’t touch it or keep it. So good for him. »

Russell meant that as an affront to Wednesday night’s officiating team – and possibly Zion himself. In fact, Russell provided an accurate description of exactly what separates Zion from other great historical offensive players.

He has a combination of physical traits rarely seen in someone of his size: strength, speed, explosion, touch, and body control. But what makes him so different is his relentless approach as a goalscorer. He plays basketball as former Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch described his style of play on the football field: He hits you over and over (and over and over again) until you burn out. If the defense tries to build a wall, Zion will break through it. If they try to build a bigger wall, he’ll just make a bigger hole in it.

When Zion touches the ball, the other nine people on the court know what he wants to do. Everyone in the arena knows that. And yet, it is always difficult to stop it.

This was the case again on Wednesday evening. From 21 shots he attempted against Minnesota, 20 fell in the paint and only two exited the restricted area. While taking on Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best rim protectors of his generation. Williamson treated him like he was just another obstacle in his way.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. I played with different types of players – markers and guys who score in different ways. But never someone who dominates the paint so much,” said teammate CJ McCollum. “It’s all based on the readers to paint. …the ability to make the right plays and to be able to handle and move the way he does. The fluidity in his movements, but also the control of the body in the jumps. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. I don’t think we will.

Most great scorers add counters to their plays to keep defenses honest. Dominant paint players Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ja Morant throw in a jump shot or two to give the defense a different look – or at least to give themselves a break.

Williamson, on the other hand, does not release the pedal. He wants to go straight to his defender and reach the edge at every opportunity. Of his 422 field goal attempts this season, 396 have been missed. That’s while getting doubled or tripled practically every time he touches the ball.

But he doesn’t dominate smaller players in the position like Shaquille O’Neal. He manages the ball on the perimeter like a point guard. Defenses can put multiple bodies in its path and prepare for its approach. They still can’t stay ahead of him.

The constant downhill pressure Williamson puts on defenses is rare among players, even those in much smaller roles than him. He is averaging 30.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists in December. He carried the Pelicans attack while battling through a host of bodies few others have seen as regularly as he does, and he handled it with ease.

Wednesday was a special night for Williamson, in part because it was the first time he hit the 40-point mark in his career. On top of that, it was a shining example of his growth as a kin in times of high pressure.

In his third season, Williamson’s understanding of when to return to play and what his team expects of him in big moments has improved dramatically. As he grew, his teammates gained more confidence in his ability to struggle in control of the attack as the going gets tighter. Every late possession went through Williamson on Wednesday, as he notched 14 straight points in the final three minutes as the lead came and went.

“Get the ball to Z and get the f––– out of the way,” McCollum said when asked to describe the team’s plan late in the game.

The absence of Brandon Ingram, still injured in the toe, gave Williamson more chances to take control of the attack in moments of high pressure. Williamson has maximized those opportunities, scoring 37 points so far in December in games under five in the final five minutes, just behind DeMar DeRozan (48) in “clutch” points this month. Balancing Williamson and Ingram in late game situations will be critical once the roster is fully healthy.

The hope is that Williamson will become even harder to slow down late in the game as his decision-making and pitch vision improve. Teams will have no choice but to send multiple bodies his way, which should make it easier for Ingram, McCollum and shooters like Trey Murphy to look.

“I want to win. I can’t sit here and always say I want to win. I have to show it,” Williamson said. go to work.’ They trusted what I would do with basketball.

Zion has also been more confident in other parts of his game lately. His 14-point run in the fourth quarter started with two free throws and a 3-pointer, long considered two of his weakest offensive skills. The three came with 2:17 left in the game and the Pelicans trailed by five. Without that bucket, there’s a good chance Minnesota will walk away.

Then there was the play when he stole a pass with 41 seconds left before launching a huge dunk to give New Orleans the lead. The same player who went through major defensive struggles earlier this year made the biggest play of the game at this end of the field.

Williamson’s incredible offensive performance lately is what stands out the most to the public. But his gradual improvement in all areas that will be tested in high leverage games – his ability to resume late games, his shooting, his defense – are more tangible signs of progress on his journey to greatness.

“I think it’s Z’s maturing process, along with other guys. They will continue to enrich their games as they gain experience in the league,” the coach said. of the Pels, Willie Green. “Tonight he just played a balanced game. He was dominating where he needed to be at both ends of the pitch.

(Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Author: niso

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