Officiating Zion Williamson fairly is effectively impossible. No player in NBA history has ever had his physical dimensions. How do you defend someone in the paint that has managed to fit 285 pounds worth of muscle into a 6-7 body? The answer teams have come up with? Foul him and trust that officials won't whistle everything.
It's a tactic that has infuriated the New Orleans Pelicans. So mad is Pelicans vice president David Griffin that he outright blamed the officials Friday for the fractured finger that now has Williamson out indefinitely.
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"I'm really frustrated because this was avoidable," Griffin said. "We told the NBA through every means available to us, through sending in film, through speaking to everybody in the official's department and everybody in basketball operations, that the way they were officiating Zion was going to get him injured.
"Quite frankly, he's injured now because of the open season there's been on Zion Williamson in the paint. He's been absolutely mauled in the paint on a regular basis, to the point that other players have said to him, 'I'm going to keep doing this to you because they don't call it.' There's more violence encouraged in the paint against Zion Williamson than any player I've seen since Shaq. It was egregious and horrific then, and the same is true now."
You could argue that Williamson's whistle hasn't even been as friendly as Shaq's. Two years into his career, he is averaging 12.5 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions. Shaq averaged 13.9 for his career, and at his apex, got up to 17.4. That's particularly noteworthy because he played in a substantially more physical era. In theory, officials were letting more go because that was the style of the league at the time, and O'Neal still racked up all of those trips to the line.
In that sense, what Williamson goes through is more noticeable. He's the outlier. Teams are used to defending power forwards behind the arc. There's no playbook for Zion's combination of speed, strength and skill, and even if there were, most teams wouldn't have the personnel in today's smaller league to execute it properly. The way they foul him is particularly egregious because there's just no other defense against him near the basket. As Griffin said, opposing players know that officials aren't going to call borderline fouls. If they called everything they feasibly could, Williamson might take 25 free throws per game. That's not exactly a compelling television product.
It's a flaw in the game's design that the NBA has not figured out how to address. There is no way to effectively protect Williamson and other unique players like him without fundamentally breaking the structure of basketball. But Williamson is a marquee player, a candidate to be the next face of the league after LeBron James retires. It is in the best interest of the sport to have Williamson healthy, and the league will no doubt look deeper into Griffin's complaints to see if there is a possible compromise to be found on the way he is officiated.