Pretend you’re an NBA defender. You’re playing against the New Orleans Pelicans, and while you can’t decide whether genuine coaching strategy or some heinous crime committed in a past life landed you in this situation, you somehow find yourself standing between Zion Williamson and the basket. You, presumably a mortal human, have been tasked with preventing this mountain on wheels from putting a small orange ball through a small white net, and odds be damned, you stood your ground, flailed an arm in his face and somehow managed to alter his shot just enough to see it carom off of the rim.
Congratulations, you’re now halfway done.
That is the predicament the No. 1 overall pick has forced upon defenses in his first four games in the NBA. As a professional player, Williamson has missed 18 total shots. He has rebounded eight of them himself. He is generating three putback possessions per game so far, trailing only Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond in the entire NBA. Here’s the rub: Zion has played only 24 minutes per game so far. Whiteside plays 30.7, while Drummond averages 33.6. His 1.25 points per putback possession puts him in elite company. Among players who use at least one possession per game on putbacks, he is just outside of the top 15 in terms of efficiency.
Stopping Williamson once is hard enough, but with only a week of NBA experience, he has essentially turned his rare misses into warmup shots, and there is absolutely nothing defenses can do about it. When Zion gets near the basket, he is just so overwhelmingly strong that he can unilaterally decide when he wants a second try. On this miss, for instance, his drive is powerful enough to functionally knock primary defender Grant Williams out of the play.
Normally, when a player gets blocked going up, the force of the ball being pushed in the opposite direction of the body creates a bit of recoil. But when Jakob Poeltl blocked him in his NBA debut, it hardly fazed him. That split second of shock was all he needed to make his second attempt.
It is perhaps the most startling example of rookie physicality in the history of the NBA. With only a week of experience under his belt, Williamson can already get practically wherever he wants on the floor whenever he wants to get there, and he’s doing it while athletically compromised thanks to a recovering torn meniscus. He’s so strong that it hardly matters how fast or bouncy he is. Once he’s stuck out his butt, his position has been carved out.
When he has it, the matchup dictates his move. At 6-6, true big men have such a height advantage that going straight up risks a block. To combat that, Williamson has toyed with a turnaround jumper made possible by the obscene amounts of space he creates when backing his man down.
It’s an imperfect move that requires some refinement, but with repetition, it is going to become unstoppable, especially when used in concert with his more traditional ability to utterly bulldoze any smaller defender.
Zion is so strong that he makes plays like this look easy and routine. They aren’t. When Kevin Love tried to post-up Zion, he couldn’t find an inch.
Rookies don’t have the wealth of skills and experiences that make veterans well-rounded players. They generally lean on the few things that got them into the NBA in the first place while they develop the tools to keep themselves there.
And even if it’s happening on a higher level than we’re used to, that is essentially what the beginning of Zion’s career has looked like. As skilled as he is by rookie standards and as explosive as he remains by human standards, he is still leaning extremely heavily on the one thing he knows he’ll have over almost anyone he plays: his muscles. He’s bullying NBA teams out of 18 points per game on over 63 percent shooting, and in a league increasingly built around 3-point shooting and the pick-and-roll, he’s done it primarily by camping out near the basket and deciding on behalf of the Pelicans that he isn’t giving the ball back until two points are on the board.
It’s what makes his hot start to the season so tantalizing. His game is going to be more nuanced in five years, but his body isn’t going anywhere. Some day, the bull in the China shop is going to learn ballet, and when he does, he’s going to be able to wreak a sort havoc we’ve never seen in professional basketball.