Will Zion Williamson’s rebounding change the New Orleans Pelicans’ roster decisions?
If the New Orleans Pelicans want to join the Western Conference elite, then Zion Williamson must get better defensively and on the boards.
When it comes to watching sports, in general, I’m usually more interested in the defensive side. Maybe it’s because that end of the floor can essentially be boiled down to how hard is someone willing to work; maybe it’s because I can’t hit a jumper outside of twelve feet.
Defense and rebounding are all about effort and the New Orleans Pelicans have a few guys who can excel in these areas, none more exciting than Zion Williamson. For all the highlights of alley-oops and in-traffic dunks that Zion provides, he’ll need to become more valuable on the defensive end to help the Pelicans get back into the playoffs.
The good part is that Williamson is willing to work hard to get better; we’ve all seen the pictures of jacked Zion before the restart and on the cover of Men’s Health but in-game he also fights for rebounds on both ends of the floor.
His best work comes on the offensive end, where he uses his freaky fast second jump to get to his own misses so often. That ability has powered Zion to 64 offensive rebounds in just 668 minutes across 24 games. That raw number alone is good enough to place Zion 112th in the NBA, tied with Pascal Siakam and Jayson Tatum and they both played at least 60 games.
On a per-game basis, Zion pulls down 2.7 offensive rebounds, which would be good for 22nd place if he qualified for the Basketball-Reference leaderboard. For context that puts him behind Domantas Sabonis, Joel Embiid, and Karl Anthony-Towns.
Another bit of info that’s interesting for New Orleans is where Derrick Favors ranks on this list, 8th, with 3.2 per game.
But Zion Williamson is ahead of Bam Adebayo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Anthony Davis, which is some pretty decent company to keep. To be ahead of all those guys as a rookie is truly remarkable.
Where Zion could get better is on the defensive side of the floor. He grabbed 3.6 defensive rebounds per game this year. He can certainly do better than that and I expect him to do so next season (a minutes increase alone will do that), and if he does, it will help New Orleans immensely.
New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson’s rebounding will affect future roster decisions.
Digging a little deeper on this, Zion gets a defensive rebound just 10.5% of the time he’s on the floor. That puts him in the fifth percentile of all bigs in the league. That’s not a pretty picture and it will impact who the team puts around Zion.
One silver lining when it comes to Zion’s poor defensive rebounding is just how good the Pelicans guards are in that area. Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are all in the top 25% of players at their respective positions. Frank Jackson and Jrue Holiday are also in the top 20% when it comes to rebounds among guards.
What came as a surprise to me at least was where Brandon Ingram landed when it came to rebounding last season. His 6.1 rebounds per game last season were fewer than Zion’s average but a majority of those came on the defensive end. Ingram gets a defensive rebound in 13.7% of the possessions in which he was on the floor, which put him in the 67th percentile among forwards.
What about the other bigs he’s played with? Well, other than Derrick Favors, none of the bigs on this roster are in the top 50% in rebounding among all players classified as bigs. Maybe most worrying is that Jahlil Okafor and Kenrich Williams were the second and third best defensive rebounders by a pretty wide margin.
Jaxson Hayes did not have a good year when looking at just his rebounding numbers. His 4.0 rebounds per game ranked ninth on the team. Now some of that can be forgiven as it was his rookie season and he was viewed by many as a project center coming into the NBA. If he can continue to grow as an all-around player those rebounding numbers should climb year over year.
To me, it seems like the Pelicans will need to either keep Favors around as a mentor to Hayes and Zion on the defensive end or bring in a center who spaces the floor but also grabs rebounds. For as much flak as Favors has gotten from New Orleans fans (much of it deserved during the bubble), he is still a smart player who knows the ins and outs of NBA defenses.
Looking at Zion Williamson’s defensive rebounding stats, it is clear that they need to surround him with a big who can grab boards, especially on the defensive end.