This week we take a ride in the roller coaster ride that is Zion Williamson’s defense. Next, how Philadelphia uses Ben Simmons to engineer fast break opportunities. Finally, the Jalen Johnson conundrum at Duke. Is he or isn’t he the player many expect to leap into stardom? 

ZION, THEY ALSO PAY YOU TO DEFEND MY MAN!

Who has not been captivated by a Zion Williamson SportsCenter dunk? But while the offensive accolades continue to come in, it is on the defensive end where the struggles are alarming. In the Pelicans two recent blowout defeats against Utah Williamson often looked lost, disinterested, and flat out too heavy. 

MOVE, MY MAN! A big part of Zion’s defensive struggles lies in his playing weight. New Orleans brought in center Steve Adams to anchor a defense thirsty for rim protection. This shifted Williamson to power forward, and small lineups are now feasting on his slow reactions in the perimeter. Zion’s top-heaviness continues to limit his impact on possessions. Thru 20 games the Pelicans star has collected a mere 6 blocks and 14 steals, a far departure from his havoc-creating days at Duke. 

It is also within the confines of his decision making where Zion has shown even less. While it is unreasonable to expect a polished defender this soon, some of those decisions show zero feel for the game. For instance, if you are going to attack this double team half-heartedly you have to account for your primary defensive responsibilities.

Hands up? Nope. Position your body to cut off the pass? Absolutely not. New Orleans’ unwillingness to challenge Zion has caused expensive workarounds. The Pelicans have a lot of money invested in Adams, a declining player who Williamson should be challenging for minutes at center. Head coach Stan Van Gundy is often stuck between playing both bigs. This limits the team’s shooting options, a big reason for the Pelicans’ pedestrian offense. But most importantly, it continues to pile on bad habits and a routine that has New Orleans playing well below expectations to start the season. 

OPTIMIZING PHILADELPHIA IN TRANSITION 

As pace continues to trend upwards, teams look for different ways to maximize the speed of play. In Philadelphia, this engineering exercise has led to an interesting positional adjustment to the team’s fastest player. Think of it as the streamlined food bar at a Subway restaurant. See if you can pinpoint what I mean.

To hit teams early in possessions requires your best open court ball handler with the ball in his hands. Optimizing this variable is very interesting, as there are different ideas on how to do so. Teams usually position that player at the top of the key. A miss and simple outlet pass ignites the fast break from the shortest distance to the opposite basket. However, Doc Rivers has Ben Simmons positioned very differently. To understand this concept, envision Simmons standing at spot#5.

How To Develop A Fast Break *guidetocoachingbasketball.com
How To Develop A Fast Break *guidetocoachingbasketball.com

The need for the extra outlet pass dissipates with Simmons near the basket. The concept is quite simple. Grab and GO! Removing this additional step from the process has sped up Philadelphia and ignited more transition opportunities. This is how it has looked over the course of Simmons’ career.

Ben Simmons Stats thru 1-22-21 *per NBA.com
Ben Simmons Stats thru 1-22-21 *per NBA.com

Simmons’ unique traits at 6’11” combines two players into one. That is, a rebounding power forward who also handles the basketball like a guard. This allows for Rivers to arrange his own set of ingredients to maximize open court opportunities. Philadelphia is only one of six teams with 20 (or more) transition possessions per game this year. Signs that the math is adding up just right! 

YOUR COLLEGE BASKETBALL PROSPECT: WING – JALEN JOHNSON 

THE RESUME

  • 12.0 points per game (6 games)
  • 9.8% block rate
  • 8.0 rebounds per game
  • 1.25 assist to turnover ratio

WHAT I LIKE

  • Fluid off the bounce. Moves well for a 6’9″ 220 lb. forward. Leverages his length to finish at the rim.
  • Good footwork in the post. Attacks advantageous matchups in the low block. Possesses a soft touch near the basket.
  • High IQ player. Unselfish. Identifies cutters and open shooters. Not a ball stopper. Engages teammates. 
  • Aware off-ball defender. Long. Leverages wingspan to impact possessions. Attacks the glass. High effort player.
  • Positional versatility. Projects as an SF-PF type with playmaking potential at the forward position. 

WHAT I DO NOT LIKE

  • Inconsistent shooter. Long and deliberate release. Limited shooting versatility outside of spot-up shooting opportunities.
  • Stiff lateral defender. Lacks shiftiness to defend quicker guards on the perimeter. Vulnerable to speed.
  • High dribble. Drives with head down. Average downhill explosion. Susceptible to turnovers attacking the basket.
  • Restrictive offensive role. Rarely used as a point forward. Stationary player off the ball. 
  • Low defensive responsibilities as a zone defender. Plays with low power. Must bulk up to anchor bigger defensive assignments. 

PROJECTION

Jalen Johnson is a polarizing prospect. A 6’9″ and 220 lb. 19-year old with great passing IQ should be a slam dunk. Johnson shows excellent fluidity and attacks power forwards with an advanced feel for a freshman. These high-quality NBA traits are very exciting. But Johnson must hone in on many areas of his game. The immediate concern comes as a shooter. Layering different shooting elements will be key. A combo forward with the ability to pull up off the dribble changes the conversation around the Duke star substantially. Johnson is not there, and there are also red flags as to his ability to defend laterally in the perimeter.

Those two critical factors can limit his impact at the next level rather substantially. Is Johnson the elite ball-handling forward who can score from multiple spots on the court? Or is he a guy without a position in the NBA? 6 games in the verdict is far from sealed. But as of today Johnson likely slots in the middle to a late lottery pick.