Zion Williamson’s Historic Rookie Season

Rusty Costanza – Associated Press

On March 11th, the NBA announced the suspension of the 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is appearing increasingly likely that the season will be shortened in some way. One possibility is the regular season being skipped altogether. If that ends up being the case, it would obviously mark the end of Zion Williamson’s debut regular season. With no basketball in the near future to look forward to, let’s look back at what the 19-year-old phenom was able to accomplish through his first 19 games in the league.

Keep in mind that throughout this article, Zion will be often compared with players who played far more than 19 games in their respective rookie seasons. However, it’s all we got.

Zion put up 23.6 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 62.4%. His scoring volume is the highest for any player in the past 23 years.1 Furthermore, his TS% is unmatched by players with comparable volume.

In other words, Zion’s combination of volume and efficiency in scoring is perhaps the best in league history for a rookie.

However, Zion isn’t any ordinary rookie. He put up all of these numbers as a 19-year-old. His numbers look even more ridiculous when you compare him to his fellow teenagers.

Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic. Not a bad group of names to be among. There is, of course, a modern bias here due to teenagers playing in the NBA being more of a recent phenomenon. Still, if a player is able to dominate when they’re just 19-years-old, it’s usually a good sign for their future.

While these visualizations do a good job at showing how unprecedented it is for a player to be performing at this level as a 19-year-old rookie, it’s important to mention that Zion isn’t just good relative to other young players. His efficiency is elite even when you compare him to players in their prime with years of experience under their belts.

Zion has possessed the ball on 852 different occasions this season, and he’s scored 427 points off of these touches. His 0.501 points per touch is an absurdly efficient rate for any player since the 2013-14 season, when touches began to be tracked. Furthermore, Zion has had possession of the ball for 25.9 total minutes this season, meaning he’s scored 16.49 points per minute with the ball.

No player makes the most of every opportunity like Zion.

Considering Zion doesn’t get as many touches as other players of his caliber, it stands to reason that his average scoring output will increase once he does get the ball as much as he should. His average points per touch may take a dip, but it wouldn’t be inconceivable for him to be putting up 27 points per game.

He hasn’t been perfect, of course. Zion’s defense has been lackluster at times. His ball-handling has resulted in easily avoidable turnovers. His free throw percentage is at an abysmal 64.5%. But, again, he’s 19-years-old. He has the physical tools to become an elite help defender. He has shown flashes of far more promising ball-handling along with some elite passing ability. And it’s not unreasonable to believe that Zion’s free throw shooting could also improve over time — rookies tend to shoot worse at the charity stripe than other players.

I’ll close this article with one final stat to excite fans of the Pelicans for their future. The 5-man lineup with the highest net rating (26.3) in the NBA this season was the Pelicans’ lineup of Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, and Derrick Favors. Furthermore, four of the eight most efficient 4-man lineups in the league this year also belonged to the Pelicans. There was only one common thread between these four lineups: Zion Williamson.

  1. This may seem like an arbitrary cutoff, but it isn’t. The rookie stats page I used on stats.nba.com only comes back to the 1996-97 season, unfortunately. There have been great rookie seasons that are not included — like Jordan’s 28 PPG campaign in 1985 and Kareem’s 29 PPG in 1970. For what it’s worth, Zion’s 36.6 points per 100 possessions this season is higher than either Jordan or Kareem put up in their rookie seasons. But I digress.
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Paul Diaz
1 year ago

Great FACTUAL article