NBA Film Study: How the Pelicans Run Football Actions for Zion Williamson

At this point, it’s pretty well known: coaches all steal stuff from each other. Few are complete innovators, but most just take concepts from elsewhere and incorporate it into their own system. The NBA has become so cut-and-paste in many ways that the offenses we watch are hardly discernible from one another.

Then a talent like Zion Williamson comes along and defies conventional wisdom.

Such a unique, gifted skill set requires some outside-the-box thinking. Alvin Gentry, the New Orleans Pelicans and that whole organization were gifted a unique athlete to build around, and the utilization of that gift meant stretching the confines of what they would consider normal.

Gentry’s staff appears to have stolen a lot from the game of football, though this isn’t the first time we’ve seen such a theft.

Erik Spoelstra used to visit Chip Kelly at Oregon to borrow some spacing concepts from his infamous Spread offense. Pete Carroll and Steve Kerr have collaborated so frequently that they started a podcast together. Opening up horizons to athletics concepts beyond the confines of our own sport can allow us to try something new without fear that it cannot be successful. That in itself is a blessing.

Football fans often hear about runners getting north-south through the line of scrimmage. Announcers heap praise on “downhill runners”. Such ball carriers keep their vision towards the endzone and their hips aligned to their target as they more quickly build up the needed combination of power and speed.

But running backs differ from most basketball players in that they have a head start on their run. Backs take two steps before they get the handoff, allowing them to hit the hole with a head of steam. Linebackers (who often get fewer steps) bounce off those runners and cannot (solo) tackle most who come at them with such force.

Now imagine Zion Williamson doing the same thing:

Get the hell out the way!

That’s a big man coming through, and it’s easy to marvel just at the sheer magnitude of how Zion destroys the rim. But there are fantastic forces at play here beyond his natural abilities. The Pelicans have developed a system to get him the ball on the move, where his momentum is already carrying him towards the rim so that he can act like a power running back on third down and bulldoze his way to the marker.

The Transition Pitch

Let’s start with the sexiest one first: Zion doesn’t wait for the defense to get set.

He’s been so great at exuding patience, particularly in semi-transition opportunities. Countless elite-caliber athletes just want to turn on their jets with no regard for timing or spacing. Credit Zion for his early grasp on the power of cooling those jets so that he can give himself a runway for takeoff.

Armed with multiple ballhandlers like Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday and Josh Hart, the Pelicans can advance the ball on the sidelines and force defenses to retreat and drop to the paint. The 4-on-5 lets Zion jog his way into the play with that downhill momentum, where he can finally strike:

While a scary sight for opponents, Zion has managed to avoid the frequent charges that would come with just careening his way through traffic without regard for who is in front of him. He’s far more nimble and beautiful with his footwork than he gets credit for.

He can slow up on the catch, force the defense to come guard him, then weave his way through traffic.

He looks like a running back doing ladder drills or slicing through the B-gap that just opened in the line!

Surprisingly enough, the key for Zion wasn’t ever going to be his athleticism.

It’s whether he could master the game when it slows down—playoff basketball is much more half-court oriented than the regular season—and have a system that would unlock all his unique attributes. We can check both boxes as steps in the right direction after Year 1.

The Blade

The NBA is a ball screen league. Lots of two-and three-man actions comprise the five-person offense.

When a ball screen occurs, it’s not just the two players involved who are threats. Most teams run what’s known as a single-side bump, where a side ball screen occurs and the corner on the same side is filled, usually with a shooter. That player will lift from the corner as the screen takes place and make himself available for a kick-out shot. If his man gets caught low, he’ll be open. If not, the roller is usually open.

The Pelicans use a concept known as “blade”, where they will bring that corner lift shooter looping around the roller and to the middle of the paint instead of hanging at the 3-point line. That cut is a difficult one to stop when Zion is doing the blading, as the rolling big serves as a de facto screener for him.

Lots of teams run variations of this, but few run it as potently or frequently for one guy as the Pels:

Zion’s momentum is already headed to the rim before he catches. He only needs one bounce to control himself, turn to his final destination and then let his physical prowess overwhelm.

This is almost like a toss play for running backs.

The roller is like the guard who pulls out in front, springing a block so he can get past the first line guy. Once he has the ball and he gets there, it’s the runner’s job to align his hips and shoulders to the target and blast through.

The Spin Lob

Okay, so this one is a little different with the football analogy: It’s third-and-goal from the five-yard line—too far to run the ball reliably but close enough where the run is still a threat.

The New England Patriots line Rob Gronkowski up on the outside edge, where he has one-on-one coverage. As the ball is released to Tom Brady, Gronkowski takes one step inside, getting his man to bite, and then swims back to the outside. His quick movements and broad shoulders seal that cornerback to the middle.

Now all Brady has to do is throw the ball up. Gronk will run his fade route, keep the defender pinned on his back and climb the ladder for the catch:

The quick shimmy is all that’s needed to get the defender inside. Defenders are so scared of Gronk possessing the ball that they bite on anything.

Zion is a similar type of specimen. He was utilized in the post quite a bit as a rookie. Whenever he had a strength advantage—which, spoiler alert, was a lot—he would walk his way into the elbow or mid-post area and let his defender gravitate towards him.

As Zion felt the contact, he would do exactly what Gronk did, except with a spin. He’d get his man to bite middle, jut back to the outside and explode to the rim:

Williamson has such broad shoulders that swimming back around him is impossible. And he’s got such hops that his guards can just throw it up and let him go get it. He doesn’t need three steps and a lot of room to take off; just a nimble spin and he’ll take it from there.

Lobs are another way to get Zion the ball while he’s already in motion towards the hoop.

It’s more conventional than the other two methods, but what stands out here is his feel for when these spin lobs could be available. Few twenty-year-olds can snuff out the type of coverage for this action. Credit Gentry and the team’s offensive design for making sure the baseline remains clear as much as possible so he can make reads like this.

To understand a gifted athlete like Williamson fully, we have to view him outside the context of any other player we’ve witnessed: He’s a bowling ball with arms and a 40-inch vertical. He requires a unique approach and some revolutionary thinking.

It’s great to see that the Pelicans have already gotten off to a quick start in that regard.