Three things to know: Zion Williamson, Pelicans making strides, have long way to go

1) Zion Williamson, Pelicans making strides, have long way to go
The things Zion Williamson does he does as well he does VERY well.

Just ask two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who had the task of guarding Williams for large chunks of Utah’s win over New Orleans Tuesday. Zion is as strong and explosive as anyone who has ever played the game, and when Gobert would play back daring Zion to shoot from the outside, he would use that on a runway, get rolling downhill, get his body into Gobert and get a bucket. Poor Derrick Favors didn’t stand a chance.

It’s how Zion ended up with 32 points against Gobert and the Jazz.

Zion is efficient at his shots, going 14-of-19 against Utah. The man is putting up historic stats.

Part of what works for Zion is Stan Van Gundy putting him in positions to succeed. For example, Zion as a point forward bringing the ball up, which drags opposing bigs out into space, then Zion blows right by them. Zion also is moving better off the ball this season.

It was not near enough against Utah, who were in control most of the game and won 118-102.

Against the Jazz Tuesday, and in other games this season, Zion and the Pelicans fade and get away from what works. As the game goes on, there is less off-the-ball movement and more isolation.

Van Gundy is also limited in the things he can do with Zion because of his game’s limitations right now.

That starts with shooting — Zion made a jump hook in the third quarter of this game that was his first made basket outside the paint this season, reports Andrew Lopez of ESPN. This season, 71.3% of Zion’s shots come at the rim and 96.6% are within 10 feet of the basket.

David Griffin and Pelicans management put players such as Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe around Zion this year, which does not create a lot of spacing. The bigger issue is Pelicans don’t take threes — third-fewest a game in the league — and don’t make them 32.7% shooting as a team. The result is the Pelicans trade their twos for opponent threes, and that math does not add up. The Jazz made 15 more threes than the Pelicans Tuesday. Good luck making up those 45 points and getting a win.

More than just spacing, on Tuesday New Orleans settling for Brandon Ingram or Zion or other players going at the Jazz in isolation rather than having player movement. The longer the game went on, the more isolation there was.

Then there’s defense — Zion has a long way to go on that end still. He has the athletic gifts to be a good defender, but he’s still figuring out how to use them at the NBA level. Utah exploited Zion for chunks of the game by putting him in motion and making him read and move on defense.

Back-to-back bad closeouts from Zion leads to five quick points for Utah.

Gotta see more effort and discipline from him as he recovers. pic.twitter.com/SLa2UhinrP

— Orange is the New Openly Black (@NekiasNBA) January 20, 2021

Utah has won six straight, is healthy, and playing well right now. Donovan Mitchell had 28 and some fantastic kick-out assists back to the top of the key, Gobert added 13 points and 18 rebounds, while Jordan Clarkson (18 points) and Joe Ingles (15) provided a spark off the bench.

New Orleans is making strides this season, they are getting better, but Tuesday night showed just how far they and Zion have to go to become one of the better teams in the West.

2) Another night, another impressive Nikola Jokic performance
Al Horford was out for the night for Oklahoma City, which meant they threw their long-and-athletic but young and inexperienced big men such as Isaiah Roby out to defend Nikola Jokic.

That went about as well as you think it did. Jokic finished the night with 27 points on 21 shots, 12 rebounds, and six assists in a 119-101 Denver win.

Jokic is averaging a triple-double this season: 25.1 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 10 assists a game, with a ridiculously efficient 65.8 true shooting percentage. He is in the MVP conversation early this season (although his defense could hold him back in that race). He has been among the best players in the league so far this season.

By the way, there was a Bol Bol sighting in this game, with him going coast-to-coast for the slam.

3) Ray Allen talks about his passion for golf, social justice
Hall of Famer Ray Allen is as detail-oriented, and as process-driven a shooter as the league has ever seen. He practiced everything. We all remember Allen for his step-back three in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA finals, forcing overtime against the Spurs and changing that series. That backpedaling three was no accident — Allen had practiced it.

Now he practices golf.

He talked about it with pro golfers Will Lowery and Doug Smith on the first episode of NBC’s new “Beyond the Fairway” podcast. Allen described the shot, back around 1998, that changed how he perceived golf.

“I was in Mexico, I was standing over — I don’t remember what course I was playing — but I was standing over, I was about 100 yards in, and there was nothing. It was a pretty forgivable fairway, so I couldn’t really hit it in the desert, it was just a matter of how close I was going to get it to the pin,” Allen said.

“I stood over that shot [and thought], I don’t know where this ball is going to go. I had a flash, a moment of brilliance, where I said, ‘this is just like basketball — if I don’t practice, I don’t know where this is going to go.’…

“I said, ‘this is the shot I need to practice all the time.’ After that, I went to the range a lot on worked on every club, every two clubs, so I knew what that club was going to do.”

That’s vintage Ray Allen.

Check out the podcast, where Allen also discusses social justice, his mindset as a player, and much more.