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Film room: Slowing down Zion Williamson

Story by Zach Pereles

Zion WilliamsonZion Williamson blocks shots and grabs rebounds with the authority of a center, jumps with the greatest athletes on Earth and can maneuver through defenses — whether through sheer strength or surprising agility for a 285-pounder — like a guard.

He’s the overwhelming favorite to be the National Player of the Year and No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft for all of those reasons. The only thing college defenses can do, for the most part, is try to make his life a little more difficult on as many possessions as they can.

Next up trying to tackle that daunting task is Virginia, and the Cavaliers — owners of one of the best defenses in the nation — have as good a chance at doing that as anybody.

Consider that mission failed, though, the first time these two teams met. Williamson scored 27 points on just 16 shots and got to the free throw line 14 times. Few players are able to penetrate and dominate Virginia’s pack line defense. Williamson is one of those few.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Williamson is completely unstoppable. He’ll certainly get his points and — in all likelihood — grow his highlight package on Saturday. But if Virginia can limit the situations in which he thrives, the Cavaliers can hold him in check.

Here’s how Williamson dominated in Durham the first time around:

The straight-line drive

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, meaning the shortest distance between Williamson and the basket — where he was shooting a ridiculous 78.3 percent through Jan. 29 — is just that: a straight line. That’s where he wants to go as often as possible, with as little resistance as possible and, ideally, with his left hand as much as possible.

Sans Tre Jones in the first matchup, Duke got the ball to Williamson at the top of the key and tried to give him as many lanes to the basket as possible. Williamson used his size and strength to often get in advantageous positions simply with a couple of dribbles.

Here are three examples of Williamson doing what he does best — drive to the basket with his left — and Virginia allowing it to happen a little too easily.

It’s important to remember that these are miniscule breakdowns. For example, in the second play of that clip, De’Andre Hunter does a great job forcing Williamson to his right hand, and Williamson has to give the ball up. But Hunter then relaxes for just a split second, allowing Williamson to get the ball back already in the paint and score.

In the second half, it appeared, Virginia made a concerted effort to get Williamson to his right hand. It worked to varying degrees of success. Here are two very similar plays with very different outcomes.

On the first play, Braxton Key does a good job of forcing Williamson to his right hand, but Hunter is just a hair late and a bit indecisive in coming over to help, and that gives Williamson a few extra inches of space to operate. At his size, strength and coordination level, that’s all he needs to finish an impressive layup through the foul.

Compare that with the second play, where Kyle Guy is alert and his help is on time. Guy’s active hands knock the ball of Williamson’s leg, resulting in a turnover. Again, it’s a tiny difference that ends up completely changing the outcome. Against Williamson, the rotations, individual defense and help defense must be essentially perfect.

Transition opportunities

Virginia is one of the best teams in the nation in limiting transition opportunities, a key attribute against a talented team such as Duke. But on a couple of occasions, the Cavaliers had slight breakdowns, and Williamson took full advantage.

Here’s how the Cavaliers can be more effective against Williamson.

Force wing touches

Williamson found it tough sledding when he caught the ball on the wing — rather than up top — against the Cavaliers. Even when he was able to get to his left hand, Virginia’s helpside defenders did a solid job, unlike, for the most part, when he caught the ball at the top of the key. Here are several examples in which Williamson is far less effective trying to attack Virginia’s defense from the wing.

One thing working in Virginia’s favor in this regard is that Tre Jones is back for Duke, meaning Williamson and RJ Barrett — the Blue Devils’ two best scorers — will spend far less time as the primary ball handler and more time on the wing. Of course, on the other hand, Jones does a terrific job setting up Williamson and Barrett on the wings. It will be interesting to see how Virginia adjusts to Jones’ presence.

Force right in all scenarios

Williamson is extremely dependent on his left hand. Any time he is forced right, it’s to the advantage of the defense. Against Virginia, two of his three turnovers came off of right-handed dribbles, and the third came when he tried to switch from his right to his left. Obviously it’s easier said than done, but it certainly could be a focus for Virginia’s game plan. Here’s one example when Williamson gets the ball at the top of the key — usually a good thing for Duke — but his right hand lets him down and leads to a layup for the Cavaliers.


The pack line is supposed to limit attacks to the rim. Unfortunately for Virginia, Williamson is pretty much a one-person pack line beater. Once Williamson does get by that first line of defense, though, it’s important that Virginia’s help is in position and can make plays without fouling.

Here’s one such example of Virginia doing a sound job on Williamson.

Mamadi Diakite draws the initial assignment, and Williamson gets to what seems to be a good scoring position. Jay Huff, however, does a great job of knowing his personnel; he’s guarding Marques Bolden, a true big man who doesn’t need to be worried about when he’s far from the basket. Huff’s help is perfectly timed, so he clogs the lane and rejects Williamson. The one caveat here is that Diakite and Huff almost never play together. However, given Huff’s ability to block shots and Diakite’s ability to defend multiple positions at 6-foot-9, that pairing could see more time on Saturday.

This doesn’t just apply to Huff, though. Duke shoots just 30.8 percent from three, 308th in the nation. If anything, the Cavaliers could try to over-help, putting multiple bodies in the paint and forcing Duke to shoot over the top. If the Blue Devils can hit outside shots, Virginia may have to tip its cap. But that hasn’t been the case this year for Mike Krzyzewski’s bunch, and it could help Virginia earn revenge in Charlottesville.

augusta free press
augusta free press