NEW ORLEANS — Just minutes into his NBA summer league debut, Zion Williamson made his presence felt. New Orleans Pelicans summer league guard Trevon Bluiett released a floater that hit off the back of the rim.
New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson was able to tap the missed shot into the air, and it landed in the hands of forward Kevin Knox. As the rest of the players for both teams headed back up the court for what was presumably the next possession, Knox found out something other players have since learned: Don’t forget where Zion is.
Knox was looking up court when the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Williamson ripped the ball away, sending Knox flailing to the ground. Williamson finished off the play with a two-handed slam that brought the entire Las Vegas crowd to its feet.
“Man, I thought the earthquake started then,” said Pelicans center Jaxson Hayes, referencing the natural phenomenon on July 5, 2019, that ended that game early. “That just showed me how strong he was really.”
While the play officially went down as a steal for Williamson, it showed that when a shot goes up, Williamson was going to try to pull it back down for himself one way or another.
Through his first 14 NBA games, Williamson ranks 10th in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage among players averaging at least 20 minutes per game. Every player ahead of him is a traditional center.
And it’s not just his ability to get offensive rebounds. It’s his innate ability to get his own offensive rebound after his missed shots. On Jan. 26 against the Boston Celtics, Williamson was 9-for-16 from the field. He pulled down an offensive rebound on six of those seven misses.
Williamson shot from just outside the restricted area, with Cavaliers forward Kevin Love contesting his shot. When the ball bounced off the front of the rim, Williamson was there to grab it. As Tristan Thompson was coming to block his shot from behind, Williamson was already going back up for a dunk.
“I think I’ll credit it to my second jump,” Williamson said. “I’ll miss a shot, and I’m thinking, ‘I’ll try to get this rebound,’ and I’ll actually get it, so I’ll try to go back up quick. … Even when I think I’m gonna make [the shot], I still kinda get in my second jump.”
Williamson’s status as an athletic marvel is well established. When he was in high school, he went through a series of tests at P3 Applied Sports Science, and the company’s founder, Dr. Marcus Elliott, told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes that Williamson had “the highest peak force of any athlete we’ve ever assessed.”
That athletic ability is translating to measurable production on the court. Williamson has picked up 22 offensive rebounds just off his own shots; that’s 24.4% of his misses going back into his hands. In total, 68.4% of Williamson’s shots end up either in the basket or back in his hands.
So far this season, Williamson has attempted 32 second-chance shots and he’s shooting 67% on those attempts, according to Second Spectrum data. That’s ahead of both Giannis Antetokounmpo (63.3%) and LeBron James (65.5%).
Being always prepared for a miss — whether it’s his own or a teammate’s — has helped the Pelicans since Williamson’s debut on Jan. 22. Prior to that point, New Orleans ranked 11th in the NBA in rebounding. It has been the second-best rebounding team in the league behind only Antetokounmpo’s Bucks since then, moving up to fifth overall for the season.
In just his seventh career game, as Lonzo Ball put up a corner 3-point attempt, the No. 1 overall pick positioned himself in the middle of the lane. Ball’s shot clanked off the back of the rim, and the reigning MVP appeared to secure the rebound, but Williamson ripped the ball from his hands and drew a foul.
“I would say the closest thing [to Zion] is probably Charles Barkley,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “You might’ve seen Barkley do it in his day and stuff like that. He’s just got such great hands and such strong hands, most of the time if he gets his hand on the ball, he’s going to end up with it. That’s another reason why he’s so gifted at offensive rebounding his own shot.”
Williamson’s work on the glass has forced opponents to adjust how they account for him, because even if he isn’t putting up double-digit rebounds — something he has done just twice — Jrue Holiday said it opens up rebounding opportunities for other Pelicans.
“Honestly, you need more than one guy to box out and go for the ball. Even when you get the ball, you’re not even sure you’re safe,” Holiday said, referencing Williamson’s ripping the ball away from Antetokounmpo. “The energy and force that he brings is unmatched in that area. You have to have some elite rebounders.”
“Super explosive. Super intelligent, as well, on the floor,” James said. “Everyone kind of recognizes his leaping ability as far as his dunks, but his second jump when he misses a shot, his ability to pass in transition, he has very infectious energy.”
Williamson was held to just two offensive rebounds in the matchup with the Lakers, neither coming off his own miss. Still, Lakers big man Anthony Davis was impressed by the rookie.
“He’s got a quick first step, very explosive; second jump is unbelievable,” the former Pelican said. “There was some times where we tried to foul him when he got by us or had an easy layup or dunk and he made free throws. So, he’s gonna continue to get better and better; obviously, this is his first year.”
While Williamson is already building a reputation as an elite offensive rebounder, he still has room to improve on the defensive glass. He averages just 3.6 defensive rebounds per game, which would place him outside the top 100 in the NBA. Other players with the same defensive rebounding average include point guards Ricky Rubio and Terry Rozier.
But as Davis said, it’s only Williamson’s first year. And it won’t take you long to listen to Gentry before he reminds you Williamson is only 19 years old.
“We say it all the time,” Gentry said. “I don’t think he’s even scratched the surface.”