LOS ANGELES – Every time Zion Williamson touches the ball in the halfcourt, he collects information about the nine other players on the floor.
With the attention he receives on each possession, there is a lot to sift through. His eyes dart from one side of the field to the other, helping his mind organize its thoughts.
Where do double teams come from? Do they give too much space to shooters? How would they react if I drove the baseline? Are there any shot blockers I should be worried about?
While Williamson is known for his brute strength and unnatural explosiveness, he doesn't get enough credit for his mental processing of the game. He enjoys this part of basketball as much as he enjoys making high shots or using his feather touch around the basket. His understanding of how to handle defenses has improved dramatically since entering the league in 2019.
“I'm just playing chess within the game and seeing how the defense guards me,” he said.
Wednesday night provided the greatest evidence of his maturity. With Williamson leading the New Orleans attack, the Pelicans achieved a landslide 117-106 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, who have won 26 of the last 31 games.
In perhaps the best win of the season for a New Orleans team that had previously struggled against top-tier competition, Williamson turned in his most impressive performance of the season. He finished the season with 21 points and 10 assists, marking the first time he had recorded at least 20 points and 10 assists in a game.
But more importantly, he controlled the match from start to finish. Like a point guard.
“I'll pick my spots,” Williamson said after the win. “(My teammates) trust me to make the right decision, but they also trust me when the time is right.”
We've seen glimpses of “Zion Point” before, most notably in the 2020-21 season under then-head coach Stan Van Gundy. In recent weeks, Pelicans coach Willie Green has been running most of the team's offense in the halfcourt through Williamson from the start.
But Wednesday was one of the first examples of Williamson taking full responsibility for playing the position. Doing this well requires constant analysis of the big picture of the game and the opponent, as well as determining exactly what your team needs to succeed at any given moment.
Williamson balanced those duties all night long against a Clippers team that entered Wednesday night as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They threw different looks and confrontations at Williamson throughout the game. None of them worked. He separated them with his deaths and attacks on the ledge.
“(We saw) it was difficult for teams to help. “When he has the ball, you have to make some choices,” Green said of his decision to play Williamson more in goal. “Are you going to help C.J. (McCollum)? Are you going to help Brandon (Ingram)? Herb (Jones) shoots the ball well. When (Williamson) doesn't have that ability, he can block the way a little bit more.”
Since Green has had more time to evaluate his oft-injured roster at full strength, he has made some adjustments to put his best players in the most useful positions. He has spoken openly about prioritizing more touches for Williamson, giving his star the freedom to run the offense as a 280-pound point guard. In fact, going this route has Williamson involved from the moment the game starts. It also made it easier for the Pelicans to spread the floor with shooters and create open opportunities when Williamson had the ball, rather than allowing defenses to fall behind him and clog the paint.
More importantly, Green's schematic adjustment has forced opponents to reveal their defensive strategy against the Pelicans' star early in games. That's when the chess match begins.
Over his last eight games, Williamson has finished with at least nine assists three times, including a 10-assist performance in Wednesday's win. Before this eight-game stretch, Williamson had nine or more assists in a game just twice in his career.
“You see him make that phenomenal jump,” Pelicans forward Trey Murphy said. “A lot of guys come into the league and they have that power and that offensive prowess (and) they don't have to pass a lot. They just get to their buckets. They make that jump when they start getting their teammates involved. After that, guys have to be a lot closer to “Their man. Now, you have more space to attack. He's really figuring it out. He's starting to direct the attack.”
Williamson was patient early Wednesday, getting just 2 points on 0-of-2 shooting in the first half while prioritizing getting his teammates into their rhythm. Despite Williamson's lack of scoring, New Orleans entered halftime with an eight-point lead.
Then Williamson took over when it mattered most. He poured in 19 points in the second half — including 13 in the fourth quarter. He forced the issue so much that he single-handedly fouled Clippers backup center Mason Plumlee with eight minutes left in the game. All six of Plumlee's fouls were committed against Williamson.
Williamson said his decision to take over in the second half was not the result of a conversation with the coaching staff or his teammates. He was the one feeling the game and sensing the Clippers trying to find the energy to come back.
“It's kind of an eye test. You feel it,” Williamson said. “When you watch the game on the field, you know when there's a shift in momentum. You know when the opposing team is about to try to make a run. You have to do everything you can to stop it and keep the momentum on your side.
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In particular, Williamson has begun to develop an unspoken bond with McCollum, the team's high-profile acquisition at the 2022 trade deadline. The 32-year-old finished with 25 points against the Clippers on 10-of-17 shooting from the field. And 5 of 11 of 3.
While McCollum has been outstanding this season regardless of his teammates, it's hard to deny the budding chemistry between him and Williamson. Two of the Pelicans' biggest shots on Wednesday came from a simple play between Williamson and McCollum that the coaching staff didn't prepare or rehearse. They simply brought these two players into play, throwing the ball back and forth to each other to create wide open shots.
“He's kind of one of those pick-and-roll fish (your plays),” Williamson said. “I'll tell CJ, (Jordan Hawkins), Trey, whoever's on the court, to stay there (behind the 3-point line). If they send the double team, I'll make the right play.”
The attention Williamson requires opens up space for every teammate, but McCollum, in particular, is the player who can create the most space for Williamson by mastering the two-man game and being in the right spots when defenses crowd the paint the most. . Green doesn't always have to design plays from the bench. He can let two of his best players work with each other and figure it out quickly.
With Williamson developing into this modified role and the players around him finding their place, the Pelicans suddenly look like a potentially more dangerous opponent relative to other Western Conference contenders. Wednesday's win improved their record to 30-21 after 51 games, tying them with fifth-place Phoenix for the best record in the conference.
They've largely gotten to this point despite needing more offensive direction. While the Pelicans have one of the deepest rosters in the league with all of their key pieces finally healthy, the roles have remained in flux from night to night. The inconsistency between the team's stars – Williamson, Ingram and McCollum – created some uncertainty as to which player needed to be in control when games became tense in the fourth quarter.
But if Williamson, in this new version of Point Zion, continues on an improved path, he could be about to separate himself and become the team's leader in the big moments. And if he is physically and mentally prepared to make that leap long term, the Pelicans should be taken seriously in the long term.
(Top photo of Zion Williamson: Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)
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