Zion’s Journey: Bittersweet Ending Can’t Diminish His Growth This Past Season

Zion Williamson’s 2024 campaign ended in bittersweet fashion. Once again, health removed Zion from the basketball court prematurely. Only this time, Williamson left amidst the strongest performance of his career in the first play-in game. This was Zion’s healthiest season to date, though. He appeared in 70 of 82 regular season games, the most of his career. That’s a positive sign. 

New Orleans entrusted Williamson with the keys to the offense this past season, electing him as their nominal point guard. Without a true floor general on a roster loaded with wing-adjacent players, Williamson stepped up as the best playmaker on the team. He reached career highs in assists per game (5.0) and assist rate (26.5%) in his new role. Among 167 qualifying non-guards, Williamson’s assist rate placed 12th in the entire NBA.

His scoring domination aids the passing as always; defenses must load up on Williamson, opening up windows to pass. Zion has matured to slice double teams from the post and the middle of the floor and rapidly process the floor in off-ball actions, whether as a roller or a cutter. WIlliamson’s comfort level as a table setter increased, making simple reads to punish strong-side help.

Williamson toned down his interior aggression, posting career-low (but still league-leading) numbers for rim frequency (13.8 shots per 75) and free-throw rate (45.2%). He looked more cautious attacking the rim than ever before, taking off from further and avoiding contact more than he has in the past.

This tendency shift may aim to increase Williamson’s future longevity, reducing his chances of high-impact injuries in the paint. When Williamson finally appears in a playoff series, I’d imagine his rim numbers skyrocket as high as feasibly possible for Zion. In the long-term, the Pels should prioritize injury management overall for Williamson.

Scaled-back offensive physicality could help Williamson on the defensive end, where he played some of the best basketball of his career this season. Notably, Williamson shined as a weak-side shot blocker, posting career highs in blocks per game (0.7) and block rate (2.1%).

Defensive consistency issues still reared their head for Williamson, as he still falls asleep and exerts little effort too often. Teams continued to force Williamson to make long rotations on the perimeter where his sluggishness in changing directions caused problems. But Zion played enough locked-in, sturdy defense on and off the ball to inspire hope for future defensive improvement. 

Zion Williamson turns 24 in July, still far away from reaching his ultimate prime. This past season brought encouraging tweaks to Zion’s approach as an offensive centerpiece alongside positive defensive moments. Williamson is only scratching the surface of what he can become as a foundational piece on hopeful title-contending teams in New Orleans for the near future.

Analysis by Ben Pfeifer

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