Zion Williamson and the art of the rebound

At long last, after three months of anticipation, the New Orleans Pelicans’ number one draft pick, Zion Williamson, finally took the floor in an NBA basketball game.

After a slow start from a 19-year old kid who clearly was not yet in game shape and who the franchise is very careful to let loose, in one fourth quarter of basketball, Zion Williamson showed the world what is possible from the most anticipated top draft pick since you know who.

Down by 12 to the San Antonio Spurs, Zion entered the game, scored 17 straight points and helped his Pelicans take the lead in a game they were losing throughout. Shortly thereafter, Zion was taken out of the game by head coach Alvin Gentry and the Pelicans ended up losing. Enter the world of Zion’s load management. The last thing the Pelicans want to do is risk this young man’s bright future on a relatively meaningless regular season game.

The Pelicans lost 121-117. But still, they won.

Zion made four three-pointers in that fourth quarter that had the New Orleans crowd on their feet but that’s not what impresses me most about this kid. At only nineteen, Zion calmly, patiently and eloquently expressed his frustration with not being able to play as much as he wants. But that’s not what impresses me most about him. He has an off-the-charts cult of personality, a smile that draws and arms that frighten but that’s not what impresses me most either. After far too many knee surgeries that anyone should have by that age, and weighing in at far more than any 19-year old ever should, he can still leap out of the building, but even that is not what impresses me most. Nor is it the fact that if you Google Zion’s name this morning, you’ll get 69,000,000 results.

What I like most about Zion is his innate knack for positioning himself on the basketball court.

I’m an old school cat. I love a player who knows his way around the basket. Bill Russell had it. Moses Malone had it. Charles Barkley, Kevin McHale and Dennis Rodman all had it, an uncanny knack to position oneself around the rim to ensure that missed shot ends up in your hands and no one else’s. Those guys were getting the rebound.  You were not.

Rebounding is about anticipation, it’s about positioning. It’s not necessarily about leaping, which Zion can most certainly do. None of the guys I mentioned above were known for their hops yet they were among the greatest rebounders of all-time. They just knew where to be and when to be there.

Rebounds change momentum on both ends of the floor. A defense forces your team into a bad shot yet there you are, grabbing the offensive board and putting the ball in for two. Problem solved; momentum changed just like that. You get a defensive rebound after forcing your opponent into a bad shot. Momentum quelled. You win both the physical and mental battle.

Rebounding is a lost art. There are few players in today’s game that control the boards like those who patrolled the paint back in the day. That, more than anything, is what I see from Zion that the pundits fail to mention. Sure, he’s a dunker and a scorer. He’s a great passer with notable court vision. But he knows how to position himself around the basket to ensure a rebound and considerably easier bucket.  And that, down the road, will keep his team in ball games.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) goes to the basket against San Antonio Spurs forward Trey Lyles (41) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Once Zion, God willing, gets into playing shape, I fully expect him to pull down double-digit rebounds per game, because he loves playing around the basket. That’s where his game thrives. With his width and strength, he’ll soon be a bear to keep out of the paint. Let the bodies hit the floor.

His only season at Duke, Zion averaged 22 points and 9 rebounds in only 30 minutes per game. Imagine what he can do, eventually, averaging closer to forty minutes… assuming he can get there, assuming his body can hold up to the rigors of an 82-game season, which is what every fan is hoping and those in NOLA are praying.

The next time you tune in to watch Zion Williamson play basketball and ESPN is hoping you will, take a good look at where and how Williamson positions himself on the court. These are things you can’t teach. These are things the kid just knows.

And that more than anything else will make him a superstar.

6 thoughts on “Zion Williamson and the art of the rebound

  1. Nice take. My 6’ 4” son was a rebounding beast in ATL HS & AAU with about a 2’ vertical against guys who soared. He read the shot and muscled himself to the right place. It’s a lost art for sure.

  2. That is one thing that all the hype misses. This guy is built like a defensive tackle in a league where the old-school power forward might as well be on the endangered species list. That coupled with a nose for the ball could be something to see.

  3. Nice job Rev. I would like to add the name of a hero of my youth. Willis Reed was another man of coursge and damaged knees who gave Russell a tough time.

  4. Moose…

    I loved positioning myself for an offensive board, not only to score but also to see just how pissed my opponent would get when I’d sneak in between him and the basket and box him out of the way.

  5. Dubs…

    I wonder how many people on the Pelicans medical staff, not to mention ownership, are counseling Gentry how to handle Zion’s playing time.

    I gotta give credit to the kid though. You can tell he wants to get out there and play. Someone is clearly feeding him patience pills.

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