Zion Williamson’s Improved Defensive Play Raises the Pelicans’ Ceiling

Don’t look now, but all of a sudden, the New Orleans Pelicans (16-8) are the first seed in the Western Conference.

Despite having versatile weapons like Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum, the Pelicans’ defense has been responsible for the team’s early success. In particular, it has been the highly criticized Zion Williamson at the forefront of it.

Williamson has averaged a career-high 1.3 steals a game to go with 0.6 blocks. According to ESPN, the acrobatic sensation has held opponents to 37.4 percent shooting as the contesting defender, which ranks fifth amongst players contesting 10 shots per game this season.

Looking back at New Orleans’ defense last year, they were 18th in the League in defensive rating without Williamson, who was out with a broken bone in his right foot. This season, the Pelicans are No. 3 in the League defensively, thanks to their 107.6 defensive rating.

Although Williamson’s impact and improvements defensively have surprised many this year, Ingram noticed the change before the campaign started and highlighted this aspect of his teammate’s game during the preseason.  

“You know what I’ve seen differently, especially on ball, is his defensive awareness,” Ingram told ESPN before the Pelicans’ preseason game versus the Miami Heat. “It looks like he has it in the back of his mind to have the effort on that end. That’s going to be something big for our team – We know we can score the basketball. But if everybody is defending and setting examples for everybody to go out there and defend, then that’s going to be much more difficult to beat us.”

As the 22-year-old’s defense continues to thrive, don’t let this distract you from what he is capable of offensively. This season, Williamson has still managed to put up 23.9 points and 7.2 rebounds on his regular impressive, efficient shooting from the field at 59 percent. The Pelicans forward will look to continue his all-around form with New Orleans again on Friday when they takes on the Phoenix Suns on Friday.