Can Zion Williamson take the Pelicans to another level?
As the start of the 2022-23 NBA season nears, I’m taking a closer look at some of the most interesting teams in the NBA (to me, if not necessarily anyone else). After start in denverour journey continues in New Orleans, where one of the league’s brightest young lights is set to re-enter.
After snagging CJ McCollum at the 2022 trade deadline, the New Orleans Pelicans most used range featured former Trail Blazer on point, top scorer Brandon Ingram and rookie lockdown Herb Jones on the wing, and murderous center Jonas Valanciunas with heeled mystery box Jaxson Hayes up front. The lineup worked well: New Orleans torched defenses to the tune of 123.5 points per 100 non-garbage possessions in the minutes of this lineup, according to Clean the glass – head and shoulders above the best offenses in the league.
Warnings for small samples will always be attached to a unit that did not break 150 minutes in total. The way the lineup was put together made sense, though: McCollum and Ingram operating in mid-range pick-and-roll and drill jumpers; Valanciunas placing rock-solid screens and attacking offensive glass; Jones cutting through open cut lanes to the edge; Hayes providing vertical screen spacing and a finish like a elite man. The ecosystem that McCollum’s arrival allowed head coach Willie Green to create helped propel a New Orleans team that opened the season 3-16 all the way to the playoffs.
This season, the Pelicans will trade a different hyper-athletic power in this ecosystem. With all due respect to Hayes, the new guy is a big improvement.
The last time we saw healthy Zion Williamson looked a lot like someone who created The Juggernaut in NBA 2K and spent all of their VC improving his ball handling package. The No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft became the first player to average at least 25 points per game while shooting 60% from the field since Charles Barkley did it in 1990. He scored over 20 a night just in the paint – the first time someone has done this since prime Shaq.
Only seven other players have scored as much and as efficiently in a season like Zion did in 2020-21. Six of them have won the MVP title: Barkley, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic. The seventh, Adrian Dantley, is in the Hall of Fame.
Zion was 20, doing that — on a team that, outside of Ingram and sometimes Lonzo Ball, lacked shot-makers and 3-point shooters, and while playing, by some accounts, well above its listed weight. (Which, if we’re being honest, probably didn’t help the burgeoning foot issues that would end up costing him the entire 2021-22 season.) He returns to a better team in a better situation, apparently. in better shape and better headspace, with an opportunity to return to jaw dropping all over the basketball world.
Amid the excitement, there’s reason to worry. How will the Pelicans find offensive rhythm when Williamson, who used 28.3% of New Orleans’ offensive possessions in 2020-21, shares the floor with Ingram and McCollum, both of who utilization rates posted north of 30% last season? One possible response: Pick up the pace. Without Zion last season, the Pelicans were done 20th in average offensive possession time, according to Unpredictable; with him healthy two seasons ago they ranked seventh. The more possessions you have, the more opportunities there are for ball handling and shooting – and the more damage your three main playmakers can cause to opposing defences.
And they are will do damage. This year’s Pelicans may not be exactly Splash Brothers Southeast, but the presence of McCollum, Ingram, sophomore swingman Trey Murphy III (who shot 38.2% from deep as a rookie, 44.3 % after the trading deadlineand just under 50% in NOLA’s first-round loss to the Suns), reserve guard Devonte ‘Graham and the occasional 5 Valanciunas (just ask Clippers how it goes down) should provide Zion with more space to operate indoors. And Zion, in turn, should give his teammates the kind of looks that make shooters salivate.
Just look at how much attention Williamson drew to this second-quarter drive in his preseason debut against the Bulls – four defenders circling him, leaving McCollum a 39.6% sniper in career, open in the corner:
If you’re looking for a way to bolster a long-range offense that ranked only 28th in the NBA last season in 3 points per game and 27th in 3-point team accuracyrelying on a perpetual mismatch that demands extra help and can spoon-feed his Pop-a-Shot caliber teammates seems like a good start.
The biggest questions lie on the defensive end – Zion improving his focus to assist responsibly and using his explosiveness to be a threatening rim protector on the weak side would be a huge help – and, as always, that an athlete whose dimensions violate the laws of physics can regain and stay healthy. So far so good, of course: after a year of rehabilitation following a foot operation and months of off-season training who would supposedly have it”much closer to his college weight of 285 pounds than the estimated 300-plus he carried throughout the 2020-21 season,” Williamson is back on the court and, as new teammate Larry Nance Jr. told reporters during training camp, “He looks like the same wrecking ball we all know and love.”
Well, defenders might not like this too much:
This version of Zion – the one who gets into the paint at will, damn finishes almost everything and devours offensive glass when he doesn’t; one that’s too quick for the big burly and too physical for everyone – could raise the Pelicans’ offensive ceiling from mid-pack to mid-top 10. Especially if, after all that time away, he comes back with even more in his bag than he had when he left.
“I’m going to show the world things that I had in my arsenal that I haven’t shown before,” Williamson said recently. said to Howard Beck Sports Illustrated.
The Pelicans bet heavily on the idea that adding this arsenal to a team that had the same point differential like warriors when Ingram and McCollum shared that the court will subject the franchise to a level of contention that it has not reached in 15 years. This summer, despite a checkered injury history that saw him miss far more games (141) than he actually played (85) in his three professional seasons, they gave Williamson extra time. the richest possible part of his contract: a period of five years “designated recruit” agreement which will earn him at least $193 million. If Zion meets the criteria for “Derrick Rose’s Rule” escalator — winning MVP, Defensive Player of the Year or a spot on one of the three All-NBA teams this season — that number adds up to more than $231 million.
The agreement comes with caveats: a prior injury clause and conditions for matches playedmore incentives based on weight and body fat aimed at keeping Williamson attached to his conditioning. But it also represents a gigantic commitment to a roster rebuilt largely in Sion’s absence, but with his presence in mind. With Williamson, McCollum and Nance all newly extended, Ingram in the third season of the five-year takeover he signed in 2020, and recent recruits like Jones, Murphy, folk hero Jose Alvarado and 2022 lottery pick Dyson Daniels all under the team’s control for the foreseeable future, New Orleans has its core locked in place – and plenty of options to explore.
Green can lean into the brontosaurus ball, sending combinations of Valanciunas, Zion, Hayes and Willy Hernangomez to pulverize opponents on the offensive boards. Against up-firing guards who can target Valanciunas in drop coverage, the coach can flip the script, insert the more mobile Nance and maybe even play with small-ball looks – say, Nance up front, Ingram, Jones and Murphy or Naji Marshall on the wings, and Zion to the point – that A) can change everything and B) isn’t that small.
The Pelicans now have possibilities; this is what the return of a talent of this stature brings. That, and a weight – the expectation of an organization to elevate, the pressure for a franchise to perform. For his part, however, Zion doesn’t see it that way.
“The thing is, I never felt the pressure on the pitch,” Zion said Tres Dean of QG this summer. “I love basketball, man. I don’t feel any pressure doing what I love, you know?
The pressure probably doesn’t feel quite as acute when you’re the one inflicting it, and some 17 months since his last trip to the NBA, Zion Williamson is about to start doing it again. A man who can fly does what he loves again; with any luck, he and New Orleans might finally have this dance.