Zion Williamson at the point guard position has the New Orleans Pelicans believing that the NBA Playoffs are within reach. Heading into the last month of the season, it looks like Point Zion is now in full swing.
But after three straight wins with Zion Williamson being the primary ballhandler, the New Orleans Pelicans were stopped in their tracks by the New York Knicks on Wednesday. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau sent bodies, lots of them, right at the second-year man out of Duke, who scored just four of his 25 points in the final 19 minutes of the game.
The New Orleans Pelicans are in 11th place in the Western Conference standings with a 25-30 record, two games out of the Play-In Tournament. There are only 17 games left in the season with just about a month to go.
Will the Zion Williamson point guard experiment be the best, most sustainable way for the New Orleans Pelicans to get back in the playoffs? Or is this just a fad that will eventually fade away?
What led to Zion Williamson playing point guard?
The Point Zion experiment was utilized only in spurts previously. But with Lonzo Ball and Nickeil Alexander-Walker missing the past few games, Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy decided it was time to try it full time. The results had been nothing short of amazing until the Knicks game
In last Friday’s 101-94 victory against the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers, Zion Williamson scored 37 points and posted career-highs with 15 rebounds and eight assists.
Two days later, Williamson had 38 points, nine rebounds and four assists in their 116-109 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Afterward, Van Gundy spoke about what the future held for Zion Williamson.
“We want to get him more experience at that spot going forward because I think that’s where his future is in this game,” Van Gundy said. “I really do.”
But how does Zion Williamson feel about this “Point Zion” experiment? Based on his response, it looks like the coach has total buy-in from his superstar forward.
“It just feels natural to me,” Williamson said. “I’ve been playing the game since I was 4. At this point, it just feels natural. I’m still learning. But certain things just do feel natural.”
To complete the trifecta of wins, the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Sacramento Kings 117-110 with the first-time All-Star registering 30 points, six rebounds and four assists.
If the New York loss was nothing but a hiccup for Van Gundy’s team, you can bet he won’t be abandoning the Point Zion experiment anytime soon. He sees this as Zion Williamson’s future and unless teams can consistently stop the Pelicans star consistently, this will carry on into the next few games minimum.
The numbers behind the New Orleans Pelicans experiment
The New Orleans Pelicans generated 110.0 points per game in four games with point guard Zion Williamson. They also averaged 25.3 assists per game and 14.5 turnovers in the small sample size data that we have. Moreover, the Pelicans shot 48.4 percent from the field overall but only 24.7 percent from 3-point range.
In contrast to the rest of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans were averaging 114.6 points, 26.0 assists and 13.6 turnovers a night. The field goal percentage is eerily similar, with the Pels shooting 48.1 percent from the field, but they shot better from three at 35.4 percent.
While most of the stats are similar, it’s the 3-point shooting that is drastically different. They’re worse in shooting the three with Zion Williamson at the point. So how are they winning 75 percent of their games during the experiment compared to just 40 percent prior?
The answer is at the other end of the court where the New Orleans Pelicans have been playing heads-up basketball. Since April 9, they have been No. 5 in defensive rating at 104.4. That’s a huge jump from being No. 28 all year and the primary reason why they’re winning games now.
In fact, among the 30 teams, the Pelicans’ offensive rating actually suffered during Zion Williamson’s time at the point. They are 25th in the league with a 107.3 offensive rating since the experiment.
What this means: Defense wins ballgames.
It wasn’t Point Zion that made them win the last four games, at least not entirely. They needed Zion Williamson to assume the playmaking chores because they had no real floor general with Ball and Alexander-Walker out. Eric Bledsoe hasn’t been making a lot of good decisions lately, so it was only right that Van Gundy chose to go with his sophomore forward instead.
If the New Orleans Pelicans can keep playing great defense, they’ll continue to win and possibly make the playoffs this season regardless of Zion Williamson’s role on the floor. Point Zion works because it helps him see the floor better from the top of the key and it gives him a ton of options from there.
It also helps the team evaluate which players complement Zion Williamson and which ones do not. That will be a discussion for later, though.
Is it sustainable? After just four games, it looks like it is since only the Knicks appear to have found a solution to it and they only won by 10 points. I would agree with Van Gundy that they should let Zion Williamson grow into the role. Teams will be scrambling to come up with new and unfamiliar defensive schemes when they face the New Orleans Pelicans so that’s a good thing.
As long as they work hard defensively, the New Orleans Pelicans will continue winning. That’s the bottom line regardless of the offense that they implement from here on.