The term “point forward” has not existed that for long, and there haven’t been that many of the special players in the NBA. But even just a little time at the point guard position has helped some of the game’s biggest superstars in the past in their development. The latest example for it is Zion Williamson.
Zion Williamson is already a superstar in the NBA. He entered the league last season with freight train of media attention and hype behind him, a tsunami which started in high school and accompanied him in college. Upon joining the NBA, there were sheer unfulfillable expectations. Still, despite a knee injury which cost him most of his first season, Williamson finished second in the Rookie of the Year award. This season, he is living up to the hype and he became the fourth-youngest NBA All-Star behind only Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Magic Johnson. The question is: what if he has already accomplished all this while playing the wrong position the whole time?
Let’s start with the New Orleans game against Indiana in February 2021 as an example. On the Pelicans’ first offense, center Steven Adams doesn’t give the ball to point guard Lonzo Ball but instead to power forward Zion Williamson, who does his best Chris Paul imitation and glides around his teammates. From the three-point line, Williamson explodes to the right and races past defender Domantas Sabonis for the layup. Two possessions later, Zion is carrying up the ball and Ball sets a screen for him. Williamson dribbles around him and hands the ball off to Eric Bledsoe, who then immediately feeds the rolling Zion for an easy two. These situations are becoming the rule and not the exception in New Orleans games with Williamson acting as a point forward. The Pelicans are far from a perfect team but one shortage the team doesn’t have is ball handlers. There is Lonzo Ball, who lives off feeding his teammates. There is Brandon Ingram, who has an irresistible drive to the rim and has the 31st-highest Usage Rate in the league. Eric Bledsoe can take over playmaking duties while backup Josh Hart likes having the ball in his hands and rookie Kira Lewis Jr. also needs the Spalding as a classical playmaker. Still, Zion brought the ball over center court on average 11 times per game in February. And his playmaking duties haven’t ended there – and that even more and more often. In the first 10 games of the season, he was in screen-and-roll situations only 2.6 times per 100 possessions. That number jumped to 4.3 times in games 11 to 20 and swelled to 16.5 times in games 21 to 30. Williamson’s rating is fourth highest behind Ingram, Ball and Lewis. Williamson also has been taking advantage of the possibilities of being a power forward – either creating from the dribble handoff or dishing the ball from the high post. He averaged 4.6 assists in games 21 to 35, an impressive increase from the 2.1 assists he had during his rookie season. And despite his added responsibility, the youngster is actually committing fewer turnovers than last season. All told, Zion’s play has the Pelicans picking up 124.3 points per 100 possessions as the second most effective offense in the league.
Free drive to the rim
The benefits of having Williamson as ball-handler are clear. He can use his athletic advantage to attack from the outside against his overmatched power forward opponents. Once there is a switch to a smaller defender, Zion can also back him down into the post or just overpower him and that causes a number of nightmares for the defense. And Zion has been historic with his ability to get to the rim. No player in NBA history has taken a higher percentage of his shots in the restricted area. He also has the league’s highest rebound percentage of his own missed shots.
Point guard traineeship?
Are we seeing a sneak preview of the future of the league? Is “Point Zion” the destiny of a superstar? Or is the field trip to the uncommon position just an educational project along the road to absolute superstar status? It wouldn’t be the first time in NBA history. A number of star players have taken the role as playmaker for a limited time – sometimes due to a lack of alternatives and other times as a strategic move. Kobe Bryant for example played as a backup point guard as a rookie in 1996-97 before gaining legendary status as an off guard. The L.A. Lakers had a good backcourt with Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones and Cedric Ceballos, all playing more than 35 minutes a game. Coach Del Harris decided to play the confident 18-year-old Bryant at the one. Bryant struggled mightily and was far from the prodigy everyone considered early on. Harris was not considered a fan of the hype surrounding his youngster and breaking down Bryant’s ego may have been part of his plan. But Bryant definitely had his learning curve quickened because of the experience, and it helped him go from ego-shooter mode to passer mode whenever necessary. In the second phase of his career alongside Pau Gasol, Bryant often functioned as passer from the pick-and-roll. A year before that, another hyped up Michael Jordan successor took over the playmaking duties for his team. Small forward Grant Hill was the first pick of the draft in 1994 by Detroit and was co-Rookie of the Year in 1994-95, averaging 19.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists. And Detroit’s head coach was Doug Collins, who once coached a young Michael Jordan. After his first season, Hill stayed at the same level as a scorer (20.2 points to 21.4 as an average) but improved as a passer (6.9 assists to 7.3 assists). The relationship with Collins broke down and Collins was fired after 2.5 years and Hill eventually returned to his “classical” role as wing.
Other superstars followed the Hill and Bryant examples. Allen Iverson was set up as a point guard though he had tremendous skills for a shooting guard. The Philadelphia 76ers were hoping their wild rookie would better understand through his play as playmaker which complex mechanisms made the difference between wins and losses. The experiment didn’t work and after two seasons, Iverson moved to the two where he could use his scoring instincts and Eric Snow would be a perfect complimentary piece as point guard. In his role as shooting guard, “A.I.” carried the Sixers to the NBA Finals in 2000-01 – while still averaging more than 4 assists per game. “The Answer” returned to the one in Philly from 2004 to 2007 and in addition to averaging 30 points dished out seven assists a game. But he really couldn’t find the balance between confident scorer and unselfish passer. Ray Allen – today remembered as the pure three-point expert and NBA champion with Boston and Miami – also was called upon to be a point guard upon his arrival in Seattle from Milwaukee in a trade. All-Star point guard Gary Payton went to the Bucks for Allen and Seattle didn’t have any alternatives for the one. Allen shared the role with fellow forward Brent Barry and dished out 5.9 assists after the trade. He had 4.8 assists in his first full season as a SuperSonic before a young Luke Ridnour ended the experiment. The most prominent example of the strategy to use your prodigy as a point guard to speed up their development is Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 2.11 meter “Greek Freak” already had two years of seasoning behind him before Coach Jason Kidd inserted the then-21 year old Antetokounmpo as point guard. With his acceptable ball-handling, legendary Eurostep and uncommon mix of length and athleticism, Antetokounmpo was a match-up nightmare. Giannis was given the ball in his hands as playmaker as often as possible, putting defenses under pressure alone with his skills as a one-on-one player. Kidd, who was one of the best point guards in league history, took over the training of his star, even climbing up on chairs in practice to better understand Giannis’ special angle of vision in order to better teach him how to read defenses. The parallels to Zion are obvious. Giannis was about the same age and dished out a similar 4.3 assists in his role as point guard. Antetokounmpo has since returned to his position as forward but occasionally will take over the playmaking duties and averages about six assists a game.
Coaches have often pushed their stars to the one to get them to a new level. Zion’s development has also sped up through his time as playmaker. But does his time there have to end? Is Zion like Kobe, someone who later plays a different position but can at any time call upon his learned point guard skills? Is he more Giannis, who rotates among all five positions – from passer in the half-court to one-man fast break to rolling interior player? Or is Zion more like LeBron James or Nikola Jokic – a playmaker in the body of a big man? The last scenario is not unlikely. Zion moving to the point guard is kind of him coming full circle. Before the draft, before Duke, before the hype and especially before his enormous growth spurt between 8th and 9th grades, Williamson was the point guard for Johnakin Middle School. Williamson was trained growing up to be a point guard. And once he grew up physically, he was like a mix of John Stockton on the inside and Karl Malone on the outside. Zion is enjoying his new role, saying that’s how he was raised. And now, the Pelicans are showing in games what previously had only been part of practice. Head coach Stan Van Gundy wants to use Williamson as a point guard long term. One of the main roadblocks in the way though is his conditioning. Zion has made major steps forward. But long term, he will have to prove that he can lead a team to the playoffs. Until then, the fans will just be enjoying the young superstar’s rise in the league – as the latest “point forward”.
by FIVE Magazine #178 – Point Forwards – Text: Jan Hieronimi