How Zion Williamson is being used by the Pelicans in his earliest NBA games

Zion is playing lots of small ball center, and shooting 75 percent from the floor. This is how the Pelicans are using him so far.

Zion Williamson has made a brilliant return from injury before. After missing three weeks of action at Duke following the blown out shoe heard around the world, the future No. 1 overall draft pick combined for 60 points and 25 rebounds in his first two games back from injury in the ACC tournament. Williamson’s first injury as a pro was less visceral but more severe, keeping him out the first three months of the NBA season as anticipation mounted for one more the most awaited debuts in league history.

Williamson has now played two games for the New Orleans Pelicans on a strict minute restriction that has essentially allowed him to play only the first five minutes of each quarter. While we’ve yet to see Zion unleashed in all his fury, his first couple games back have hinted at how the Pelicans plan to use him, and at just how incredible he’s going to be once he’s fully healthy.

In two games against the San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets, Williamson has combined for 37 points and 13 rebounds on 15-of-20 shooting in 39 total minutes. His return has given us fleeting moments greatness, like the 3:08 stretch in his debut where he hit four consecutive three-pointers and scored 17 straight points.

Part of what makes Williamson such a fascinating player is how versatile he is: he can be used a ball handler or a big man at either end, with his unprecedented combination of speed, power, and touch giving him so many outlets to impact the game. Williamson’s role will likely change over time, but this is what we know about his game in the NBA so far.

The Pelicans are giving Williamson time as a small ball center

The Pelicans have Williamson in the starting lineup at power forward to begin games, flanked by Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, and Derrick Favors. After his first stint, though, Williamson is seeing a lot of time as the only big man on the floor. Williamson has played 46 percent of his minutes at center so far, according to basketball-reference.

What does this look like functionally? It means we’ve seen Williamson as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, not the ball handler. He demands an immense amount of attention in these actions and is skilled enough to finish the play with a bucket most of the time.

Playing at the five has also given Williamson the opportunity to get touches in the post. New Orleans can space the floor around him with shooters, and let him go to work when he gets a switch on a smaller defender.

This was just way too easy.

The Pelicans have mostly been using Williamson at center in change of pace lineups to give their offense a boost. While he’s going to spend lots of time at power forward next to another intriguing Pelicans rookie, Jaxson Hayes, it’s clear head coach Alvin Gentry is happy to deploy Williamson at the five in certain situations.

Here’s a prediction for the immediate future: most of his best highlights will come when he’s playing center surrounded by shooters.

Williamson is already super efficient as a scorer

All Zion has done in his first two games is make 75 percent of his field goal attempts, no big deal.

This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. At Duke, Williamson made 74.7 percent of his two-point field goals, astounding efficiency for someone who took 364 two-point attempts. His 70.2 true shooting percentage was one of the best college hoops has ever seen for a high usage player.

Williamson won’t shoot 75 percent from the field against pros over the course of a full season, but he’s still going to be monstrously efficient. While his dunking ability has gotten so much attention, Williamson also has rare touch on layups around the rim. Once he gets close the basket, he’s usually going to score.

Zion already has a pronounced impact on winning

This stat says it all.

Everyone wants to see Williamson play more, but the Pelicans also know they need to keep him healthy long-term. Unfortunately, the minute restriction is having a short-term impact on their ability to win games. It’s possible New Orleans could have beaten Denver and San Antonio with Williamson playing a full minutes load. Instead, they lost both games after he came out.

Zion can still blow us away with his athleticism

Into the stands!

In the future, don’t be surprised when Williamson starts tipping the ball to himself in situations like that one to kick start the fastbreak. For now, we’ll take the viral highlight.

The Pelicans will eventually try to use Williamson as an offensive initiator, both handling the ball in the pick-and-roll and running isolations. As a big man, his short roll passing will only improve, which will unlock so many open shots for the New Orleans offense.

These are just our first glimpses at what Williamson is like in the NBA. Please just keep this man healthy, because he’s already so much fun to watch.

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