To say Zion Williamson has been impressive this preseason would be an understatement. The Pelicans rookie, taken No. 1 overall in this June's draft, is averaging 23.8 points on better than 71 percent shooting. Extrapolate that production over 36 minutes, and Zion, were he logging typical regular-season playing time, would be averaging better than 30 points and eight boards a game.
It's easy to dismiss preseason numbers, and if you want to do that, fine. But if you've watched Zion play at all this preseason, you know these numbers are legit. They might even undersell how great Zion has been.
A common point of skepticism among scouts when it came to projecting Zion's immediate NBA value centered on a pretty basic question: "What's going to happen when Zion isn't the best athlete on the floor? When he can't push everyone around?"
Turns out, just like in college, he still is the best athlete on the floor.
And at 19 years old, he is indeed pushing grown men around.
In addition to his obvious ability to run and jump like a cartoon, this is a guy who has shown, with ease, that he can out-muscle just about anyone for offensive boards, that he has a sweet touch in the paint, that he can put the ball on the floor and change directions on a dime, that he can finish through contact, that he has incredible body control, that he has a go-to power move in the spin-back to his left, and, among other things, that he can collapse defenses and kick to open shooters in the rare instances where he actually gets cut off.
In watching the film, there is one common theme in Zion's game that ties so many of these skills together: He is ALWAYS exploding -- not moving, exploding -- toward the rim. I've watched every shot Zion has taken from 15 feet in this preseason, and not once has he faded away or even, for that matter, gone straight up. Watch these two clips below, where you'll see Zion has an opportunity on both to pull up short and loft up a finesse shot over reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Instead, he takes it straight into Gobert's chest.
The latter clip you just watched is particularly noteworthy. The seas basically parted and Zion had a cushy little four-footer waiting for him. But Zion knows getting into the chest of a shot blocker like Gobert eliminates his leverage. Gobert is caught off guard and isn't even off the ground before Zion is going THROUGH him.
There are a number of examples like this one, where Zion catches in the paint, or gets an offensive board, maybe takes a gather dribble, but in the end he always ends up attacking TOWARD the rim.
This downhill momentum Zion is constantly generating really shows up when he catches on the perimeter, where he doesn't wait until he receives the ball to get going toward the basket; he's getting started before the pass is even made, which puts tremendous pressure on a defense given his freight-train athleticism. You're talking about a 6-foot-6, 280-pound locomotive with a running start. Good luck stepping in front of this:
In this next clip, you can see Zion standing on the wing (top of the screen) behind the 3-point line, and by the time he's curling around the screen and receiving the pass, he's already at the elbow and turning toward the rim on the move:
This next clip might be my favorite because, again, it highlights Zion's attacking mentality as much as it does his athleticism. After setting a ball screen for Lonzo Ball, Zion pops back to the 3-point line. Lonzo gets into the paint, collapses the defense, and kicks it back out to Zion, who is all alone and could easily just catch and shoot a wide-open 3-pointer.
Instead, the pass is a little short and Zion GOES TO the ball rather than waiting for it to come to him, again getting his momentum headed downhill as the play develops. Now, this is where a lot of guys get in trouble -- they've gotten going so fast that they're out of control and they end up crashing into bodies, but Zion shows great body control to avoid the charge, and then, even when he misses the initial shot, he's STILL programmed to keep moving toward the rim and follows his own miss with a put-back dunk before anyone else can even get off the ground.
This is a guy who is determined to get to the rim -- not in a head-down, bull-in-a-china-shop way, but with equal parts power and grace. He anticipates these lanes to the rim opening up in a way a great shooter recognizes open space before it actually opens. This is big-time stuff for a 19-year-old who knows if he can get a running start toward the rim, there aren't very many people on earth who are going to get in his way.