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Zion Williamson's football frame blended with basketball finesse could be next frontier

Seerat Sohi
·5-min read

The rumble shook the arena, the Jumbotron in the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, the psyches of the fans who made the pilgrimage, the camerapeople who fought for the best angle to document the arrival of Zion Williamson, the most-anticipated NBA prospect since LeBron James. But the ripples of a 7.1 magnitude earthquake originating in Southern California stopped Williamson’s NBA Summer League debut short in 2019.

It was the first warning sign for a hype train that kept getting delayed: two knee injuries, a global pandemic.

Almost two years later, it feels more like a premonition. Zion Williamson is shaking up the NBA, breaking rims, ruling the paint, where he scores more points than anyone since prime Shaquille O’Neal. He is defying norms, generating more points per shot attempt than Steph Curry, despite averaging one made three every five games.

We were told Williamson would rattle rims in the open floor of 94x50-foot parameters where NBA games are played. But only 2.6 of Williamson’s 26.5 points come from fast break points. The New Orleans Pelicans play a ground-bound game that Williamson enhances, generating 10.5 extra points per 100 half-court possessions when he’s on the floor, according to Cleaning The Glass. That differential is in the 95th percentile, tied with Kevin Durant and Luka Doncic.

Williamson doesn’t need the open floor to explode.

He doesn’t even need space. None of his teammates on the Pelicans shoots above 40% from three.

Williamson starts next to Steven Adams, a burly 7-footer who hangs out near the rim, and that’s all right, too. Williamson doesn’t even need a runway. He can take off from anywhere.

In a game defined by space, Williamson is thriving by maneuvering through tight spots.

A 6-foot-7 bowling ball with a negative wingspan, Williamson looks like he should have played football. That’s exactly why he has the potential to change basketball.

In 1891, Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian professor teaching in Springfield, was commissioned to think up a non-violent foil to football that still promoted physical activity. He put two peach baskets on opposite ends of a gym and called it basketball. But the game immediately devolved into violence, with players tackling each other to the ground, battling for possession of the ball. Then, Naismith came back with the original 13 rules of basketball, designed to curb aggression and incentivize grace.

Fast-forward 130 years and Williamson is combining two properties that basketball has treated as opposites: aggression and finesse. Basketball and football. 

“I played quarterback and safety,” Williamson told Yahoo Sports. “I honestly liked playing defense better because I was able to deliver the hit, and not get it.”

Williamson went to high school in football country: Spartanburg, South Carolina, just an hour from the Clemson Tigers football program. When he was touring Spartanburg Day High School, he found out their football team went undefeated in its last year. In 1981.

With that, his football career ended, but he took its lessons with him.

Williamson comes off this double-screen against the Boston Celtics like a cannonball, staying low and exploding through a gap between Robert Williams III and Kemba Walker before it closes like he’s trying to barrel his way to the end zone.

“It’s the low angles,” said Williamson, “It’s making the proper cut when you need to make it, so I’m not charging anybody. I’m drawing a blocking foul or putting them in a position where they either have to foul me, or they’re gonna have to let me go. I take that part from football.”

In the paint, Williamson turns his size into an advantage, hiding the ball in his stocky frame, driving with his backside, one of the reasons he doesn’t get called for a lot of charges: he’s rarely extending a forearm. He’s coming at you with his frame, the full thrust of Zion: a low center of gravity that bursts up for air after throwing his opponent’s off.

"Some [7-footers] are mobile, some aren’t, so depending on how mobile they are,” Williamson said. “If they’re very mobile, I’ll attack their lower legs so they can’t jump to block it but if they’re not as mobile, I’ll try to jump right over them.”

Here’s Williamson paying a compliment to Time Lord’s mobility, getting under his arm like a man who knows how to limbo (before drawing a foul).

Zion Williamson
Zion Williamson

Watching Williamson muscle through the trees has become an adventure. How will he bump, jostle, shift and MacGyver his way to the front of the hoop this time? With the ball in his hands, his attack has absolutely no preamble. He doesn’t need time to rev up the engine. Plenty of NBA players are athletic. Williamson is explosive. He accelerates so fast he looks like he’s disappearing from one spot and materializing in another.

Scouting Williamson, as a result, is not as simple as building a wall or sending timely doubles. Teams have been doing that all season, thanks to the Pelicans’ lack of spacing. Williamson has the strength to fight through multiple defenders with comfort and he can attack double-teams faster than they can get set.

But Williamson has yet to experience the combination of scouting, attention and scrutiny that comes with the playoffs, that X-ray laser that exposes even the most dominant young players.

He’ll get walled off like LeBron James once did, like Giannis Antetokounmpo does. He’ll have to stop relying on his left hand so much and develop a more creative finishing package against the stockier, burlier bigs. He’ll have to expand his range and his playmaking and learn to leverage his bodily gifts on the defensive end, where the ability to materialize out of nowhere ought to be useful.

Time will tell if Williamson can apply the varnish that sustains legends. We don’t know where he’s going from here, but he could take the game to heights — and widths — it’s never seen before.

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