When Zion Williamson finally made his NBA debut in late January, it was even more electric than anyone could have anticipated. Even though the New Orleans Pelicans ended up falling short against the San Antonio Spurs, Williamson singlehandedly dragged them back into the game with a dominant stretch in the fourth quarter.
Since that first game, he kept on showing why he was the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, scoring at least 14 points and shooting at least 53.8 percent from the field in all of his first six games. Even at just 19 years old, it’s clear he’s on a different level than most players from a physicality and athleticism standpoint. He was just dominant around the rim, shooting 42 of 61 in the restricted area over those contests, and looked borderline unstoppable at times. Even when he didn’t make a shot, he would just go up and get the rebound and put it back in.
Then, he ran into the Milwaukee Bucks. Though he finished with 20 points, Williamson shot just 5 of 19 from the field on Tuesday night, as the Bucks dominated the second half en route to a 120-108 win. After missing just 30 shots in his first six games combined, Williamson missed 14 shots against the Bucks. And what’s more, he went just 5 of 16 in the restricted area after making 42 of 61 attempts there prior to this matchup.
To put that in perspective, the most shots Williamson missed in a game at Duke was 12, and he only shot under 50 percent three times in college. Considering he shot 72 percent from the field over his high school career, it’s not out of the realm of possibility this is one of the worst shooting games he’s ever had in his entire life. So, now the question is, how did the Bucks welcome Williamson to the league?
It starts, first of all, with their defensive philosophy. They are determined to prevent easy looks at the rim, and will do so even if it means giving up all sorts wide-open 3s. They allow 38.8 3-pointers per game, which is the most in the league, and that means they’re susceptible to hot shooting nights, as the Nuggets showed just last week. In fact, most of the losses the Bucks have suffered this season have been a result of teams going wild from behind the arc.
But they also give up the fewest shots in the restricted area, and allow the lowest percentage in the league on those attempts. Teams are converting just 54.5 percent of their 24.3 looks at the rim, and over the course of the season that emphasis has helped them win a lot of games — 43 to be exact, which is more than any other team in the league.
Perhaps no play was a better summation of the whole situation than this possession early in the first quarter. Williamson runs a pick-and-roll with Jrue Holiday, and gets the ball on the slip. Lopez sinks all the way in to cover the paint, while Giannis Antetokounmpo rotates over from the weakside to help protect the rim. Against most teams, Williamson would just overpower his opponents and finish, but that wasn’t happening against this duo. Lopez and Giannis converge on Williamson and force him to miss the layup. This was three players all doing what they do best, and this time, the Bucks won.
Of course, it obviously also helps to have elite defensive players such as Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez and Giannis patrolling the paint, and that trio made things tough for the rookie. To be fair, there were a few occasions where Williamson’s power and leaping ability got the better of them, and some of his misses were putback attempts, but overall he had little success. Even when it was a one-on-one situation, the Bucks’ size and length bothered Williamson, who, as good as he is, only stands about 6-foot-6.
Giannis vs. Zion
The Greek Freak is one of the best defensive players in the league, and showed why often against Williamson. Early in the first quarter, the No. 1 pick tried to take him one-on-one, but Giannis forced him into a very tough runner. On this play, Williamson actually does show his impressive second-jump ability, and gets up for a tip attempt, but misses that also.
Early in the second quarter, Williamson once again challenges Giannis at the rim, and just like the first time, he’s forced into a tough shot that he can’t convert. But this time around, he’s able to draw a foul once he regathers his miss.
Later in the second quarter, the two phenoms met once again, this time on the fastbreak. To his credit, Williamson went right at the MVP, but Giannis wasn’t having any of it, and rose up for a strong rejection.
While those were three nice initial defensive plays, Williamson was able to corral his own miss on two of them, which shows just how difficult he is to fully contain, even for the best teams. The Bucks’ ability to crash the glass and be physical with him over the rest of the game was key in limiting his impact.
Brook Lopez vs. Zion
While Brook Lopez doesn’t have the same athleticism as his frontcourt partner, he makes up for it with sheer size and strength. He’s a brick wall in the paint, and even Williamson, who plays with more force than just about anyone in the league, was having trouble dealing with him.
Early in the second quarter, Williamson got Lopez in an iso situation and tried to go to work. But the veteran used his strength and physicality to shut that down and swat the shot away.
Moving on to the fourth quarter, they’re again matched up one-on-one, this time on the block. Williamson breaks out a really nifty move, going first to the baseline, then spinning middle for a little jump hook. The quickness of his move would have gotten many defenders, but Lopez has good instincts and is so big that he was still able to bother the shot and force a miss.
As you’ll notice, both of these shots were rebounded by Giannis, preventing any putbacks.
Robin Lopez vs. Zion
Most of the discussion about the Bucks’ defensive scheme and success focuses on Brook Lopez and Giannis, and for good reason considering they start and play major minutes. But they added Robin Lopez in the offseason, and he provides yet another huge body to protect the rim.
Even at a huge disadvantage in terms of quickness and athleticism, he was able to use his size to dissuade Williamson as well. Early in the fourth quarter, Williamson gets downhill on him in transition and goes straight at his chest, but Lopez turns him away.
All told, Williamson was still able to get to the line for 14 free throws, and finished with 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists. And it could have been even more if he got a few of his putbacks to go, or got some calls he was complaining about.
So while this game highlights the Bucks’ elite defensive capabilities, and they deserve praise for the work they did to contain Williamson, it also shows how the rookie is already a force to be reckoned with. He faced the best defense in the league with a perfect contingent of players to limit him, had a rough night, and still finished with a 20/7/5 line in his seventh NBA game.