CAMDEN, N.J. — The Philadelphia 76ers continue to roll to start the 2023-24 season. After stomping out LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers at home, the Sixers wil hit the road to see another star forward that puts immense pressure on defenses in Zion Williamson.
Williamson is averaging 23.4 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting from the field so far this season. Even though he hasn’t been as productive as he had in past seasons, he's a tough matchup to handle. His athletic burst, dexterity and ball-handling make him tough to contain if allowed to get downhill. Even with Joel Embiid manning the middle and Williamson still seeking comfort in a revamped offense, the Sixers will have a lot on their plate with slowing down Williamson.
At the Sixers' last home practice before taking off for New Orleans, Nick Nurse explained that against a guy like Williamson, each guy will have to be ready to help out, much like how they needed to against Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. But against the bigger, more physical Williamson, it's going to take brawn as well as brains.
“When he decides to go, it's so explosive and fast, right? I mentioned this a little bit with OKC; Once Shai makes his move, you better have already started to make your move to help or maybe even anticipated that that's coming or the ball's gonna be in the basket,” Nurse said. “It‘s maybe even different with Zion 'cause he starts a little closer a lot of times and he makes his move and he's already at the rim. So the anticipation of help is one thing. The willingness to stand in there physically against Zion is a big challenge. That's another thing. So, yeah, those two things are where my mind's at right now.”
Facing Williamson will be a good test for the Sixers' defense, which is 12th in defensive rating on Cleaning the Glass over the whole season and 17th over the last two weeks. In the halfcourt, they’re slightly below average. New Orleans plays at a fast pace that allows Williamson to get opportunities in the open floor, too.
Nurse knows the Sixers have some work to do on defense but that he also has the personnel around Embiid to make the unit a truly elite one.
“Most of it relates to me learning what to do with Joel vs. the way I've kind of been doing it, or the way maybe you would do it,” Nurse said when asked what the Sixers can do better on defense. “I'm trying to continue to find tweaks of things we can do to use his strengths and then hopefully our team's strengths the best.”
One thing the Sixers aren’t doing enough, Nurse said, is “snuffing out problems” when the defense penetrates.
“Like when there's a break, when there's a major breakdown, when there's a major problem, I think we've gotta try to make them make more than one play,” the Sixers head coach said. “We gotta stop the next problem and create another problem and see if we can keep making them make, maybe, three decisions in a half-court [possession] rather than one when something bad started happening.”
Against Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas and a Pelicans team with the pieces to be a strong offensive team (at least once C.J. McCollum returns), the Sixers will have their work cut out for them.