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Can Zion Williamson be the small-ball centre the New Orleans Pelicans want?

Willie Green wants to try playing Zion at the five, despite evidence that it doesn’t work early in his career. Is it worth the experiment?

Jimmy Butler is “very emotional right now”. Damian Lillard has “never been in no photo like this”. James Harden is sleeping off a hangover in his hotel room. Media day is the first time players report (or don’t) back to their respective teams, and the 2023-24 training camp opener was one of the best.

Despite the straightened fringes, awkward Instagram filters and cute 0.5 camera pics, the wildest moment might have come from the New Orleans Pelicans head coach Willie Green, who flagged a tactical change in the works for one of the franchise’s star players.

Green reiterated that Zion Williamson will spend time playing the five in some Pelicans lineups this season, a position that has been touted as a part-time possibility for the big man since he came into the league, but one at which he’s only spent 5% of his time on the floor so far.

When everyone is healthy (and it’s one of the biggest whens in the league), the Pels’ biggest struggle on offence has been fitting together two forwards who are most effective with the ball in their hands.

Brandon Ingram cemented himself as a team leader and a league threat in Zion’s absence during the 2021-22 season. He was coming off screens and rising at the elbow like a pseudo-Kevin Durant and propelled the Pels’ famous late season run to an exciting six-game series against the Phoenix Suns.

Zion’s best basketball of his professional career came in December and January last season when Ingram was sidelined with a toe injury – his deft finishing around the rim and drive-and-kick skills made him one of the most effective dribble penetrators in the league and briefly sat the Pelicans atop of the Western Conference standings.

When both are on the court, the Pelicans offence can devolve into a bit of your-turn-my-turn, as one player feels sidelined while the other goes for 30.

On paper, it makes perfect sense to get Zion involved in more screening actions as the roll man. He is undoubtedly one of the league’s best finishers at the rim, he’s nimble and he’s quite literally built like a brick shithouse – if a brick shithouse could leap up 45 inches from a standing position.

Getting him the ball on the short roll is an attractive prospect too, amplifying his substantial gravity while still opening up the opportunity for Zion to show off his playmaking instincts. You can imagine how anxious a defence would feel with Zion with a mismatch at the free throw line and Trey Murphy and CJ McCollum lurking in the corners.

The frontcourt partners Zion has spent the most time playing with have been Jonas Valanciunas and Steven Adams, two slow centres who don’t space the floor and whose value instead comes from their screening and boxing out skills.

Playing Zion at the five (and keeping Valanciunas and Larry Nance Jr. on the bench during those minutes) means he’ll have more space than he has ever had in his career – part of what made his run last season so impressive was the sheer number of bodies he had to meet at the rim on every offensive possession.

The two big offensive questions, though, are: is Zion actually a good roll man and is this the best use of his talents?

Zion wasn’t even involved in ten pick-and-rolls as the roll man last season, which seems insane. Across the 61 games he played in his last healthy season, 2020-21, the Pelicans went to the pick-and-roll with Zion as the big man 1.2 times per game, for an average of 1.15 points per possession (PPP). It’s not a bad result, but it’s hardly groundbreaking and far from the league’s best.

That same season, the Pelicans generated just 0.99 PPP with Zion as the ballhandler in those scenarios on 3.2 possessions per game, and 1.03 PPP on 3.5 possessions per game last season.

There’s a bit to read in the tea leaves here – the Zion dribble penetration passes the eye test as an effective offensive play for the Pelicans, and the average showing per possession could say more about the lacklustre talent that has surrounded Zion at various points in his career. Given the Pelicans are going into the season with their two star forwards healthy, it’s worth trying.

The biggest no-nos come on the other end of the floor, where Zion is yet to show almost any of the defensive nous he has hoped to develop.

Although he has all the skills and athleticism to be a solid help rim-protector and plenty of blocks into the third row in his showreel, teams are not at all threatened by the prospect of him roaming the paint.

Teams are 2.2 percent more accurate at the rim when Zion is on the floor, putting him in the dismal 28th-percentile for big men, per Cleaning the Glass. This is when he is spending 95% of his time on the court as a power forward – imagine how it would look without a centre behind him.

The Pelicans hardly have a rim-protecting big man in Jonas Valanciunas (in fact he is one of the more ground-bound seven-footers in the league) and yet since his move to New Orleans he has ranked well, with opponents shooting 2.8 percent less accurately at the rim when he’s on the floor, putting him in the 79th-percentile. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is a symptom of his teammates rather than the Lithuanian big man trending Brook Lopez.

The benefit of having a 6’6” player at the centre position on defence was demonstrated to Death (get it?) by the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, but let me tell you something: Zion Williamson is no Draymond Green. Despite his agility on offence, Zion turns into a traffic cone on defence, failing to stay in front of guards and wings on the perimeter and constantly getting turned around.

Zion as a small-ball five then only helps the Pelicans by the extra switchy wing they can put on the floor next to him (Herb Jones, Trey Murphy, Dyson Daniels, Naji Marshall) and the benefit of not having two lumbering big men who will get rinsed on the perimeter at any given time. The Pelicans have lived with being one of the league’s worst rim-protecting teams before.

The eternal problem with Zion Williamson is that we just haven’t seen him play enough basketball to make judgements about how best to use him. Every time his offensive game is in a groove and you start to think about how best to deploy him, he goes down for another 60 games.

Willie Green isn’t wrong in saying that he’ll be using Zion at the five this upcoming season. Coaches should use the regular season to experiment with lineups and find out what combinations work best.

But the clock is ticking on the long-term makeup of this team. There’s no lottery pick seven-footer waiting in the wings, and Valanciunas is interested in an extension. If Zion doesn’t show out as an elite roll man and improve on defence, then a decision needs to be made regarding long-term centre options next to him.

The Pelicans have been atop the Western Conference with a ball handling Zion Williamson, and they’ve also had a top-six defence with Jonas Valanciunas at the five. Willie Green needs to figure out if flipping this arrangement is worth the squeeze – and quickly.

Written by
Marco Holden Jeffery

Marco is one half of The JVG NBA Tribute Show, a weekly NBA podcast that can be found wherever you get your podcasts. He's also a very welcome guest on The Deep Two NBA Podcast's Four-man Weave + Marco segment, adding another well-needed dash of cautious optimism.

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