The NBA season is somehow less than a month away. The return of basketball is imminent, and along with it the return of exciting young talents such as Zion Williamson. We last saw Zion struggling to contribute to the New Orleans Pelicans' push to reach the playoffs in the NBA bubble. It was always a long shot they'd make it anyway, but Williamson's play was a touch concerning. He looked slow and not nearly as explosive as he was before the season was postponed in March.
It was a strange time to be playing basketball and there are approximately a thousand reasons one could attribute to Zion's lackluster showing in Orlando that have nothing to do with his short or long-term prospects as an NBA player. At this point, we can still expect to be wowed by his athletic feats on the court and his spot as one of the league's most exciting young players is not in jeopardy.
Once the Pelicans left the bubble, the project building a team around Zion began. The franchise traded Jrue Holiday while bringing in Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe. They inked Brandon Ingram to a five-year max extension to give Zion his running mate of the future, then hired Stan Van Gundy to oversee it all. In a press conference discussing the moves of the last few months and the rapidly-approaching season, Pelicans President of Basketball Operations David Griffin revealed something interesting: New Orleans envisions its young star playing a lot of small forward this season, instead of power forward and center, the two positions where he spent all of his brief rookie season.
Basically everybody envisions Zion only playing PF or C because he is a very large man, even if he isn't a particularly tall one. He's currently listed at 6-foot-6, 280 pounds. There are no small forwards in the league checking in at 280 freaking pounds. Hell, in today's NBA, a lot of power forwards and centers won't even hit that number.
The Pelicans likely want to do this because it would significantly reduce the wear-and-tear on Williamson's body, which is the biggest threat he faces to a long career as an elite player. Playing in the front court means battling players nearly as big and strong as he is on a nightly basis. The tradeoff is that he's quicker and faster than every one of those players, making for a dangerous combination of agility and strength that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Slotting Williamson in at small forward would definitely take away the quickness advantage on most nights, but it would give him a size advantage offensively. The problem is what happens to the rest of the lineup and on the defensive end of the court. Ingram isn't quite quick enough on his feet to defend the best shooting guards in the NBA (he'll do in a pinch), but that's where he would have to play if Zion is taking up his natural position. Adams was presumably brought in to play center, so who plays power forward now that Derrick Favors is out of town? Jaxson Hayes? Pretty much every PF in the NBA will blow right by him as teams continue to value smaller fours who can shoot. They could move Ingram to the four and start Bledsoe/Lonzo Ball in the frontcourt, but Ingram isn't nearly strong enough to hang with other power forwards in the paint on either end.
Then there's the question of if Zion himself can survive defensively guarding small forwards. He's quick for his size and a strong contender for the most athletic player in the league, but on a night-to-night basis, it doesn't feel like he has the foot speed to stay in front of opposing SFs. He can do it occasionally-- that's why he projects to be one of the most dangerous small-ball centers out there-- but dedicating significant time to the position doesn't seem worthwhile long-term as far as his play goes.
The most important aspect of all of this is if Zion can shoot the three well enough so playing him at small forward won't eliminate any spacing the team has. He did post a great percentage from deep in his first season (42.5 percent) but he also attempted fewer than one per game. His Duke stats are similar. He can hit 3-pointers at a reasonable clip, but it'll never be the most effective part of his game, and delineating him to sitting behind the arc and hoisting up four or five attempts per contest is an egregious misuse of his talents.
It's an interesting thought and I'm sure Van Gundy will experiment with all sorts of different lineups with the versatile players he has at his disposal. But unless Zion lost 30 pounds and nobody has found out yet, playing him at the three won't work out well. The other team isn't going to put their small forward on Zion. They're going to put a center or forward on him and hang back below the 3-point line to dare him to shoot. It's fine for the Pelicans if Zion is playing power forward or center and being dared to shoot, but a prerequisite of being an effective small forward in today's NBA is to shoot well.
Zion Williamson is many things. A small forward is not one of them. But, in the interest of preserving the state of his knees, perhaps it's worth a shot.