New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson is second in the NBA in free throw attempts and fourth in the league in free throw attempts per game, but head coach Stan Van Gundy thinks he should be shooting even more.
On Wednesday night against the Denver Nuggets, Williamson had a chance at a dunk to tie the score with 2.2 seconds remaining with a dunk, but the ball was swatted away by MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. Replays showed Jokic making contact with Williamson’s hand and head.
Officials did not call a foul on the play, giving Jokic the game-saving block, preventing the Nuggets from blowing a nine-point lead in the final 43.8 and helping to seal a 114-112 victory for Denver.
“I did see the replay, and I saw exactly what you saw,” Van Gundy said, alluding to a non-call on a foul.
Williamson said there’s “not much I can do” about not getting calls and that he has to learn from it and finish the shot next time.
“I gotta earn my respect,” said Williamson, who had 21 points and shot 8-of-17 from the field, only the seventh time this season he has been below .500. “I’m only in Year 2. Gotta get a couple more years under my belt and hopefully things change with that.”
A dunk could have sent the game to overtime, erasing a nine-point lead that seemed insurmountable before the Pelicans went on a quick 11-4 run that featured a banked-in 3-pointer by Eric Bledsoe and a backcourt steal and slam by Brandon Ingram.
Down two with 9.9 seconds to go, the Pelicans forced a turnover and had a chance to tie or take the lead. Bledsoe came up with the steal and pushed the ball up court and found Ingram on the wing. Ingram drove to the middle of the lane and found Williamson under the goal, where Jokic was waiting.
“I was there to stop the drive, he shovel-passed to Zion, he went to dunk and I was going hard to just not let him score,” Jokic said. “I was aiming for the ball and I was going as hard as I can. Even if it’s a foul, don’t give him an and-1.”
Nuggets forward Paul Millsap, a 15-year veteran, said the final play was one of the craziest finishes he has ever seen during his time in the league.
“But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter,” Millsap said. “We got the win.”
Ingram said he feels that Williamson “pretty much 10 times out of 10” would finish that play but that things didn’t go the Pelicans’ way.
“Obviously, all of us thought it was a foul, but the referee saw something different,” Ingram said. “At the end of the day, we have to go with what the referee says. I’m sure that’s only fuel for him to go harder in the next game and make sure that he’s making it known he’s getting fouled under the basket and finish strong.
“I’ll make that play 100 percent, every time. He might’ve got fouled, it might’ve been a blocked shot. It just ended the way it ended.”
After Wednesday’s games, only Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo has attempted more free throws this season than Williamson and only Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Trae Young have gone to the stripe more per game.
Still, Van Gundy thinks Williamson’s attempts should be higher.
“He gets to the free throw line a lot, and I’ve had referees say to me, ‘How many free throws has he shot?’ and it’s a stupid question,” Van Gundy said. “It doesn’t matter. Call it every single time he gets fouled. That’s all your job is.
“It’s not a matter of, ‘Oh, he shot eight free throws,’ or, ‘Oh, he shot 10 free throws.’ Some nights he should shoot 20. So call it. That’s all. Just call it. What more does he have to do to get those calls? I don’t know. That’s a great question.
“I do think strength gets punished in this league a lot more than quickness. If you’re able to go through contact a little bit, it’s called differently. If you fall down every time you’re hit or you flop, you get calls. That’s just the way it is. It’s not just Zion, that’s just the way it is.”
Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball, who finished with 16 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists for his first triple-double of the season, said Williamson plays through the fouls. Ball said he doesn’t know what else Williamson can do to get more calls.
“He’s going to the rim every time,” Ball said. “There are fouls, they aren’t calling them.
“Z can’t call his own fouls. It’s not pickup basketball. He’s just gotta keep going and hopefully the whistle turns for him. But in the meantime, just keep playing hard.”