There is only one NBA team that Zion Williamson hasn’t played against: the Orlando Magic.
Whether because of injury or rest, Zion has not participated in his first three scheduled games against the Magic over his first two seasons, including the Magic’s 115-110 overtime win over the Pelicans in April 1. That should change tonight as he is expected to take the court in Orlando.
How the Magic try to stop the freight train that is Zion Williamson from rolling through the paint will be interesting to watch. Williamson is averaging 26.9 points and 7.2 rebounds this season. He’s making 61.7 percent of his 16.8 field goal attempts per game this season, having shot over 50 percent from the field in 47 of 53 games.
Going face-to-face with Zion won’t be easy for the Magic, but Chuma Okeke, selected 15 picks after Zion in the 2019 NBA Draft, has done it before....
How do you stop Zion Williamson?— Jeff WeltGawd (@MagicMan816) July 19, 2020
Draft you a Chuma Okeke of course! pic.twitter.com/6PxNatmG7U
Zion has since put on a few pounds. He’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 284 pounds, giving him a 50-plus pound advantage over the 6-foot-6, 229-pound Okeke. He has a Shaq-like ability to overpower opponents inside, with 71.5 percent of his total field goal attempts this season coming from within three feet of the rim, yet can handle the ball like a fleet-footed guard.
So, how do you contain him? To better answer that, we had a Q&A with Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis), who has covered the Magic for OPP and the Pelicans for The Bird Writes...
What has made Zion so dominant this season? What impresses you most about him?
Ellis: It’s inarguably his ability to collapse a defense and finish at the rim. If you haven’t been paying attention, Zion has been getting to the rim with the same volume and efficiency as Shaq while driving the offense like a point guard. His generational combination of size and agility allows him to power through big-bodied centers or circumvent them with finesse. He can finish with either hand and has the dexterity to do so in a variety of ways making him largely unstoppable for some of the game’s greatest defenders.
Which areas does he still need to improve?
Ellis: Inarguably defensively. Zion has all the physical skills to be a top defender but lacks the awareness to man the 4 and 5 positions on that end. This is natural for a young player. The desperate need for eyes in the back of your head only comes with experience but opposing offenses should have plenty of looks at the rim against the Pelicans and late rotations will give them open looks from the perimeter, as well.
What’s the best way to defend Zion?
Ellis: There’s no defending Zion. You can try to pack the paint if you like and trust that none of Zion’s teammates will have a scorching shooting night which is a safe assumption. But the bottom line is that if Zion wants to get to the basket, you are not stopping him. He’s going to collect his 30 points on 18 shots and there is little you can do about it. The best thing you can do is erase his teammates (not hard to do outside of Ingram) and take full opportunity of all the mental lapses the Pelicans experience on the other end. Zion has not yet reached 40 points in his career so if the worst thing that happens is he goes off for 38 and his teammates struggle, the odds are that the opposing team will win.
Five years from now, Zion is _______.
Ellis: Zion is already an MVP caliber talent. The only thing missing from his games are wins. His shooting stroke may improve in time which can diversify his scoring and save his body from repeated impact but really what Zion needs is to improve defensively, close games and get wins. Once he does that, I have no doubt he will be an annual All-Star and All-NBA talent. At just 20 years of age, there is high probability he may emerge as a top-5 player before the age of 25.
Zion leads a 25-33 Pelicans team that sits 3.5 games behind the Spurs for a spot in the play-in tournament after dropping four straight games. Coached by our old friend Stan Van Gundy, the Pelicans enter with the league’s ninth best offensive rating at 114.0 points per 100 possessions, and the league’s fourth worst defensive rating at 114.8 points per. They are one of the best rebounding teams in the league, with a league-best rebounding percentage of 52.9 (including the top offensive rebound percentage of 30.6 percent).
Spacing can be an issue, even with Brandon Ingram averaging 24.2 points per game, and Lonzo Ball shooting a career-best matching 37.5 percent from deep on a career-high 7.9 attempts per game. The Pelicans are shooting just 34.7 percent from three (sixth worst), and have an offensively-limited, traditional back-to-the-basket center Steve Adams alongside Zion in the frontcourt.
Still, it will be a difficult matchup for a young Magic team that is not yet fully equipped to stand their ground in the paint against bigger bodies. The Magic, who were grossly outrebounded by Clint Capela and the Hawks during Tuesday’s loss, have lost nine of their last 10 games.
“You’re not going to win when you get pounded like that on the glass,” Steve Clifford told reporters after the game. “You have no chance to win.”
Terrence Ross and James Ennis both are listed as questionable, while Michael Carter-Williams and Otto Porter Jr. are out. That means a fourth straight start for Cole Anthony, who over his last three games with the starting unit is averaging 17.3 points, 7.3 assists (2.7 turnovers), and 5.3 rebounds. The rookie continues to struggle with his efficiency during that three-game stretch, particularly from deep where he is shooting just 29.4 percent on 5.7 attempts per, but is showing an improved ability to finish the rim.
Who: Orlando Magic (18-40) vs. New Orleans Pelicans (25-33)
When: Thursday at 7 p.m.
Where: Amway Center - Orlando, Florida
TV: Bally Sports Florida