Zion is becoming a very good passer, which should scare the rest of the league

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LOS ANGELES — Zion Williamson stood at the free throw line Sunday when a Clippers’ fan and heckler yelled from behind the basket, “all you can do is dunk.”

Zion shrugged postgame, both at the heckler he said he didn’t hear and the concept.

“To anybody who knows basketball and watches basketball, I don’t even have to explain myself,” Zion said

Zion’s right. That fan — and anyone else echoing the old “he only dunks” trope — has not been paying attention this season.

Zion is a much-improved passer and playmaker, something that was on full display in the Pelicans’ win over the Clippers Sunday — Zion had seven assists (and could have had more, Pels shooters missed four open 3s off his passes).

He consistently found the open man when the defense collapsed to take away his assaults on the rim. He’s not just making the simple pass either, he made a couple of near skip-passes that were thinking the game a couple of moves ahead.

“It goes back to something. Coach K said to me it has always stuck with me since the Duke days: The game is so simple. It’s crazy,” Zion said. “If two people are shifting towards you, two people gotta be open. Somebody has to be open out there. And that also goes in coach [Willie] Green putting us in great spots. So when the double team does come the pass is easy.”

“I think that’s an underrated skill that he possesses,” CJ McCollum emphasized. “He talked about showing his total game this season, how we had a lot of weapons and a lot of guys who can contribute towards winning I think he is just displaying that he’s willing to do what it takes to win.”

Zion has seen multiple defenders since junior high, but the speed, length and sophistication of the doubles coming at him in the NBA take time to adjust to. On Sunday, Zion anticipated the doubles and knew where to find open shooters.

“I would say before, I think I would rush it sometimes trying to see an open pass,” Zion said. “But now I just let it develop. I let the defense kind of shift towards me and as soon as I see them take that shift, like I said, we got some special shooters on his team and I’m able to find them and they knocked shots down.”

Two things make Zion’s playmaking work. First, he remains a physical force of nature inside — he had 21 points and 12 rebounds against the Clippers. Los Angeles threw a variety of doubles at him in the post, with Ivica Zubac often as the primary defender (he had some level of success), then help coming to force Zion out of the middle. Even that attention can only do so much against the speed and strength Zion brings to the party — all 17 of his shots came within eight feet of the rim.

The other is the Pelicans have trusted shooters all over the court — the spacing is there. And when Brandon Ingram returns from concussion protocol, the Pelicans add another shot creator to the mix, allowing Zion to work more off the ball against mismatches, or just crash the glass with abandon.

Willie Green saw mismatches against the Clippers’ small ball lineups Sunday and broke out point-Zion as a counter — an adjustment that worked well and led to a number of quality shots, partly because of Zion’s vision and willingness to pass.

“The thing that we did today that I hadn’t done a lot was to just put the ball in Z’s hands at the top kind of play point guard more, a bit during the stretches in the game to try to take advantage of some of the mismatches,” Green said.

With Ingram, McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas, Trey Murphy III, Naji Marshall (who had a breakout 17 points against the Clippers), Larry Nance Jr., Devonte' Graham, Herbert Jones and on down the line, the Pelicans have the weapons to be a top-10 offense easy.

What unlocks them to become an elite offense that is unstoppable is Zion the playmaker.

“I have said it before, he makes the right decision,” coach Green said. “Whether it’s to score for himself, find his teammates and kicking it out, setting screens, continuing to move. So he was fantastic.”

More of that Zion is what should scare the rest of the league.

Celtics lock-up Al Horford with two-year, $20 million extension

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
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Brad Stevens has locked up the core of this Celtics team — the one that reached the Finals last season and has the best record in the NBA to start this one — through the summer of 2025.

They did that with a two-year, $20 million extension (that kicks in next season). The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and later confirmed by the Celtics.

Horford, 36, is making $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia. While he never fit well as a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, he has worked well as a role player in Boston’s front line. The Celtics have locked him up at a deal closer to the league average and about his value now, at an average of $10 million a season (both years are fully guaranteed). It’s a fair deal for both sides, and a low enough number that if Father Time starts to win the race it doesn’t hurt Boston much.

With Robert Williams still out following knee surgery, Horford has seen his minutes increase to start this season but he has handled it well, averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Joe Mazzulla will likely try to get Horford some rest down the line when he can, but for now he’s leaning on the veteran.

And the team has rewarded him.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron calls out reporters for asking him about Kyrie Irving but not Jerry Jones

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Within days of Kyrie Irving being suspended by the Nets in the wake of a Tweet promoting an antisemitic film (and his initial refusal to apologize for it), Irving’s former teammate LeBron James was asked about it. He had to deal with the controversy, saying, “I don’t condone any hate to any kind. To any race.”

At the end of his press conference Wednesday night after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, LeBron scolded the assembled press for not asking him about the 1957 photo that surfaced of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones outside North Little Rock High School while white students protested the integration of the school when they had been quick to ask about Irving.

“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, `I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, `Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving and LeBron were teammates in Cleveland and won a ring together, there was a direct connection (plus Irving had been linked to the Lakers in trade rumors over the summer).

However, there was a connection between LeBron and the Cowboys as well. LeBron was for many years a very public Cowboys fan (despite growing up in Browns territory). It came up as recently as October, when LeBron was on Instagram Live promoting his HBO show with Maverick Carter “The Shop” and he said he had stopped rooting for the Cowboys in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, “There’s just a lot of things that were going on when guys were kneeling. Guys were having freedom of speech and wanting to do it in a very peaceful manner…. The organization was like, ‘If you do that around here, then you will never play for this franchise again.’ I just didn’t think that was appropriate.”

When asked about the photo, Jones said he was a curious 14-year-old who was watching and didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment or situation.