Coming out of Duke, many considered Zion’s defense as his best attribute. His ridiculous vertical leap combined with his immense physical stature made him a sure-fire defensive force. However, that has not been the case in this early NBA season. Not only has his defense not been great, I would argue it hasn’t even been neutral. Simply put, Zion has been a significant detractor on defense. While he has plenty of time to rectify these concerns, some of the patterns I’ve noticed don’t bode well for the future.
It wouldn’t be fair or truthful to paint Zion as a complete bust on defense. For instance, I found that he excelled in situations where he could leverage both his colossal strength and explosiveness. Takes these two plays against OG Anunoby and Rudy Gay. In both of these, he’s able to firmly establish his feet, keep in front of them, and swat their shot attempts.
Neither Gay nor Anunoby are known for their speed, and very few players are going to physically bully Zion.
What stood out the most during his college days was his ability to make taking a routine perimeter jumper terrifying. He can still dig into that bag to strongly contest three-point attempts.
Finally, he was active in passing lanes. Even though he doesn’t create many turnovers off these plays, his presence makes passers think twice before trying to throw one by his ear.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of the nice things that I have to say.
When closing out, it is essential to have squeaky shoes/choppy feet. Closing out flat-footed and/or landing on both feet by lunging out to the offense will leave you standing in concrete and punish the rest of your team on defense. By chopping your feet/squeaking your shoes, this ensures that you will be on your toes and ready to move in any direction.CLOSING OUT WITH URGENCY, Better Basketball, 2020
This axiom of “chop your feet on closeouts” is one that’s been ingrained in my head since running countless defensive drills in high school. Admittedly, not every basketball strategy from high school carries over to the NBA, but this is one that definitely does. Watch as Zion closes out by hopping the last couple of feet which allows Siakam to easily blow by him.
You can even see Zion’s right ankle buckle slightly on his landing which takes away another precious defensive moment. Chopping his feet would let him change direction quicker by keeping him light on his toes.
Unfortunately, this was not the only instance where Zion employed his hopping closeout, and had I kept every single clip, I could’ve expanded this article a significant amount.
Poor Rim Protection
Back in 2019, Jonathan Tjarks said the following about using Zion as a center.
There are times when he looks like Draymond Green: He can bang with bigger players inside, rotate over as a help-side defender, and switch onto smaller players on the perimeter. Zion’s block rate (6.6 percent) puts him right behind Al Horford at no. 31 among the 49 big men drafted in the lottery since 2004, but his steal rate (3.7 percent) is no. 2 behind only Nerlens Noel.Zion Williamson Could Be the Next Great NBA Point Center, The Ringer, 2019
Statistically, Zion’s defense, especially his rim protection, hasn’t nearly lived up to these lofty comparisons. Last season, opponents shot 6 percentage points better within six feet when Zion was defending them. This season (as of January 1st), opponents are shooting 21 percentage point better. Undoubtedly, this trend will not be so egregious all season, but I also don’t see it approaching a positive number.
As the backline defender, he simply doesn’t have the height or reach to defend shots at the rim. Here, he finds himself under the basket and feebly jumping to contest the cutting Siakam to no effect.
Zion has a quick jumper, but again, since he’s not as tall as premier rim protectors like Rudy Gobert or Kristaps Porzingis, it takes him longer to reach the apex of his jump. Compare this block attempt to a lightning quick reaction from Anthony Davis.
While the following play is one that only a couple of players could consistently contest, it illustrates Zion’s probable inability to be a rim protecting anchor.
Allowing Offensive Rebounds
Rebounding is somewhat of a contentious discussion in NBA circles. Ultimately, the value of defensive rebounding boils down to this: are you helping your team from giving up easy shots around the basket?
Generally, I’d say that Zion is not. His strength and vertical leap allow him to snatch rebounds in traffic, but he doesn’t always put himself in the best position to grab those rebounds. Look at these two plays where his ball watching gives up offensive rebounds.
In that second play, those are two easy points that Zion could have prevented by either putting his body in front of his man or by running in and grabbing the rebound. Average NBA pace is right around 100 possessions, so if you consider this play as Zion giving up two points per 100 possessions, that’s one easy fix that the Pelicans cannot afford to ignore.
More than anything, the aspect of Zion’s defense that shocked me the most was his twisting and turning when defending a player one-on-one. Here, let me just show you these two clips first.
HE TURNS THE WRONG DIRECTION!!! Nevermind the whole sliding your feet versus running next to an opposing player, Zion literally just turns his back to the player he is defending. In the first play, he lucks out tremendously because that extra couple of seconds it takes for him to reorient himself leaves Hall wide open from five feet away. However, he’s not so fortunate in that second play as Siakam finds himself completely uncontested at the rim. Just to emphasize, Siakam is literally driving in a straight line.
Numbers Agree with Me about Zion’s Defense
On paper, the Pelicans should be a great defensive team. I’ve called Bledsoe the best point-of-attack defender in the NBA, Ball has tremendous defensive instincts, and Adams is one of the most underrated rim protectors in the league. Even with all of their new players, the Pelicans’ 4th best defensive rating of 100.6 is 8.7 points per 100 possessions better than league average. However, when Zion is off the court, their defensive rating drops down to an unprecedented 85.9. When he’s on the court, it balloons to a defense resembling Swiss cheese: 111.7. That is a defensive rating shift of 25.9.
Nonetheless, early per-100 stats in the NBA are extremely volatile, and I’ve made embarrassingly wrong predictions based on them in the past. This major discrepancy may level out as the season continues, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t bank on it reaching an equilibrium.
Zion’s Defense has Room to Grow
Right now, Zion’s defense is objectively bad. I’ve shown you evidence from film along with statistical proof to back that claim up. When thinking about how much value a player brings on either side of the ball, it’s clear to me that Zion’s presence tanks the Pelicans’ defense. Since it’s early, I’m not going to speculate on how many points per 100 possessions his defense hurts, but I can assure you that it’s well below zero.
However, as I pointed out in the film, there are clear ways that Zion can improve. Sadly, Zion probably won’t grow or stretch his arms, nor will he achieve a body type more conducive to deftly bouncing around the court. What he can do is shore up those moments that bleed points: closing to the perimeter with chopping feet, expending more energy to end defensive possessions with a team rebound, and working on his general footwork when defending. Given his physical gifts and twitchy reactions, I see no reason why he can’t be a positive defender. Conversely, I see no evidence of a player who can ever sniff the All-Defensive teams.