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Only so much knowledge can be gleaned from preseason NBA action. But annual outliers to the significance of early-October basketball exist, and New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson is the biggest one in recent memory. Every waking moment of his unofficial introduction to the league will be watched, dissected, and fawned over by analysts and fans across the globe.
Here are four factors to keep an eye on during Williamson’s long-awaited NBA debut on Monday night, as the Pelicans open exhibition play against the Atlanta Hawks.
1. His Conditioning & Fitness Level
Williamson is listed at his collegiate weight of 285 pounds, which makes him the second-heaviest player in basketball. To be clear, his conditioning and body composition loom much larger to his effectiveness than his playing weight. He’s built more like a defensive end than power forward, with a barrel chest, thick waist, and tree-trunk legs at just 19 years old.
Still, Williamson was noticeably out of shape during his brief appearance at Summer League in July, clearly content to take it easy through the pre-draft process, given his unshakable status as the top prospect in his class. Williamson just went through his first NBA training camp, though, and New Orleans has no doubt prioritized improving his fitness.
Expect Williamson to look a bit lighter and catch his wind a bit easier against the Hawks than he did in Las Vegas. But as he made clear back then, the highlights are sure to come either way.
2. What Position(s) He Plays
Williamson recently raised eyebrows by contending that he’ll spend time at small forward this season. Don’t buy it.
The Pelicans are one of the league’s deepest teams, in the backcourt and frontcourt, and the sweeping benefits provided by the presence of a position-less physical specimen like Williamson stem from him playing power forward and center full-time. His long-range jumper isn’t anywhere near reliable, either, and he’s ill-suited to chase smalls around screens on the perimeter.
Williamson will start at power forward on Monday. But keep an eye on whether coach Alvin Gentry rolls out a small-ball unit with Williamson sliding down to center, the lineup configuration primed to be New Orleans’ best – not just long-term, but perhaps this season, too.
3. Whether Zion Williamson’s Jumper Has Improved
Zion Williamson is a generational prospect, but he’s not quite a surefire MVP candidate, and his lack of a reliable jumper is the chief reason why.
A streaky shooter at best during his ballyhooed high school career, he shot a middling 33.8% from beyond the arc at Duke, mostly on wide-open attempts defenses begged him to take. Williamson will be defended in a similar manner at the NBA level. Teams will make him prove it from deep before aggressively closing out on his catch-and-shoot opportunities, and go under almost all picks set for him as a ball handler.
Williamson’s jumper isn’t broken. There’s absolutely a chance he eventually develops into a threatening three-point shooter, even off the dribble. But the scope of his productivity and influence as a rookie could be mostly decided by the progress, if any, he’s made as a shooter over the past few months.
4. What Role Zion Plays on the Upstart Pelicans Squad
Don’t be surprised if Williamson primarily occupies a supporting role in 2019-20, finishing plays around the rim and wreaking havoc in transition, with doses of alpha-dog status intentionally sprinkled in by Gentry. His use on defense will be of interest, too, especially as it relates to how often New Orleans switches screens across the floor.
At his peak, Zion Williamson projects as the rare player who single-handedly informs his team’s schemes on both sides of the ball. Some believe he’s already good enough for that dynamic to be put in place this season. More likely is that Williamson functions as one of the best role players in basketball, giving fans fleeting, exciting glimpses of superstardom to come on a nightly basis, beginning Monday in Atlanta.