Zion Williamson is the Shaquille O'Neal of the NBA's small-ball era

Ben Rohrbach

Zion Williamson is everything we imagined him to be, and he is only just getting started.

Imagine stuffing Shaquille O’Neal inside of Michael Jordan, and you have Zion — a 6-foot-6, 285-pound freak who can bounce around, over or through anyone in the NBA at age 19. The New Orleans Pelicans are only nine games into this experiment, and they are quickly learning that Zion can practically punish the rim whenever and however he wants. He is an old-school post player in a new-school body, too quick for bigs and too strong for everyone else. And he isn’t 100 percent yet.

With the governor on so soon after returning from knee surgery, Zion’s averages extrapolated over 36 minutes are 28 points (on 58/40/63 shooting splits), 10.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.4 steals and blocks. According to Cleaning the Glass, he is using roughly a little more than a quarter of his team’s possessions in the 27 minutes he is on the floor every night, and it feels like it’s not enough.

Zion Williamson has announced his arrival so all can hear. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson has announced his arrival so all can hear. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Zion has attempted one mid-range jumper and 10 three-pointers in nine games. Everything else is in the paint. He is averaging two dunks and nine layups a game. Almost 85 percent of his 125 shots have come at the rim, and he is converting 63.5 percent of them. And all those numbers feel low.

Yet, when you compare Zion’s small sample size to Shaq’s first season with the Los Angeles Lakers — the earliest available campaign to Second Spectrum — you see just how dominant Zion already is. O’Neal averaged two dunks and 4.4 layups in 81 games in 1996-97, taking a bunch more (less efficient) bunnies. He only attempted 57 percent of his shots at the rim, making two-thirds of them.

Here’s the thing: Zion gets to the rim in more creative ways. He hustles in transition, either beating the defense for a lob or pinning defenders for a post-up with room to work. He contorts himself around opponents on the drive and can spin in the blink of an eye for a layup from the high post with a bounce that makes Jordan’s free-throw line dunk look routine. He regenerates instantly when he lands, too, bouncing back to the rim for put-backs before the defense has a chance to regroup.

It is stunning to see. Just watch him work in the post:

Marcus Smart? Get off me. Kevin Love? I’m stronger than you, too. Jonas Valiancunas? I’ll just go around you. P.J. Tucker? Too small, too slow. Trevor Ariza? I’ll leave you in my dust so fast Hassan Whiteside won’t even want to step in my runway for the ferocious dunk I’m about to throw down.

That is as broad a selection of defenders as one could imagine. You wonder why the Pelicans don’t feed him on the block more often. Teams have already started throwing double teams at him, and he has shown the ability to overpower them, too, and his passing makes that all the more difficult.

With or without the ball, Zion must be accounted for at all times. Lose him, and he will meet a lob before you know it from Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday or Brandon Ingram, a trio of playmakers who suit his style. Heck, the passes don’t have to be all that great. He can get to most anything. And even if his defender sticks with him, Zion often still rises over him for the alley-oop. He is always looking for the lob — in transition, the halfcourt, second chances, even multiple times on the same possession.

Just watch:

Do not let the 6-6 fool you. Zion is not just a big. He is big. As small-ball is concerned, he is the big. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Pelicans are grabbing 34.9 percent of available offensive rebounds when Zion is on the floor, which would rank first among teams by a wide margin. He has the ability to play above anyone — from Zach LaVine to Giannis Antetokounmpo to any 7-footer on your roster — and if he comes down with the ball, he can play above you again without warning.

Just watch:

He is, quite simply, a matchup problem. The Pelicans are playing at a pace of 107.24 possessions per 48 minutes in the limited time Zion has manned the center position, which again is easily faster than any other team. Most bigs not named Giannis or LeBron cannot keep up with him in the open court, and smalls stand no chance if he gets the ball in transition anywhere close to the basket.

The Zion-at-center lineups have been incredible, albeit in 33 minutes of action. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Pelicans are outscoring opponents by 24.9 points per 100 possessions with him in the middle, registering a 119.7 offensive rating and 94.9 defensive rating — both league-best ranks.

Now, imagine if he weren’t coming off knee surgery, if he were in good enough game shape to playing 36 minutes a night, and if he learns to read every defense they throw at him. As I’ve said before, the sky is the limit, and even we would probably have to wonder if he can elevate higher.

As it stands, Zion is giving New Orleans what Shaq gave Miami during the 2005-06 regular season. The question is whether he will ever give what Shaq gave to Los Angeles in the playoffs. We are getting ahead of ourselves, but he is no doubt the type of player worth leaping to conclusions over.

Pray to the basketball gods Zion stays healthy, because we are in for one heck of a show.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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