When rumors swirled that the family of Zion Williamson wanted him to play on a more competitive team, the New Orleans Pelicans were a far different iteration than the one we’re seeing in the 2022 NBA Playoffs.
Sunday’s win over the league-leading Phoenix Suns tied the first round series 2-2, showing once again that the Pelicans’ surge during the second half of the season was no fluke. And while the Suns remain the favorites, there’s no doubt that the Pelicans have shown something during this first round.
The team, currently spearheaded by Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum, and Jonas Valanciunas, are winning on their own merit, without Williamson no less, which now means the onus is on the 21-year-old to renew his, or his family’s, perception of the club.
The supporting cast is now in place
Williamson, who missed the entire regular season due to a foot issue, was obviously missed greatly during the course of the year, but his absence allowed the organization to give opportunities to players that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten similar chances, had Williamson been healthy.
Rookie Herb Jones is not just one of the best first-year defenders out there. He’s one of the best the league has to offer, period. While his play would undoubtedly have provided him with some minutes, having the luxury of earning consistent minutes, and working his own way into the flow of an NBA season, has done wonders for his career, both now and in the future.
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Larry Nance Jr, acquired via Portland at the trade deadline along with McCollum, is also playing over 20 minutes per game for the Pelicans in the playoffs, providing versatile defense, playmaking, and opportunistic scoring.
Both Jones and Nance will see a decrease in minutes when Williamson returns, but that front-line rotation is now solidified. What’s more crucial is how the Pelicans have upgraded elsewhere, with McCollum being the biggest acquisition of the season.
The veteran guard has been used more on-the-ball in New Orleans than he was in Portland, spending years playing off of superstar Damian Lillard. Now, McCollum is the primary decision maker, balancing playmaking with shot-taking, and netting over 24 points per game since becoming a Pelican.
McCollum’s mixture of self-creation and ability to move off-the-ball could not be better suited for when Williamson makes his return to the team, especially as both are flanked by Ingram, who is still very much around, and currently averaging almost 30 points against the Suns.
Ingram is the versatile glue, that in theory should bring the effectiveness of McCollum and Williamson to the forefront, when all are healthy. By being one of the most versatile forward scorers in the NBA, Ingram’s presence will help create space for McCollum and Williamson to operate in pick and roll action, using the attention devoted to that by opposing defenses to fly under the radar.
If teams hedge hard on McCollum, he’s a smart enough passer to get the ball out of his hands early, allowing Ingram especially to hunt shots either by moving around the perimeter or cutting hard to the basket. Furthermore, the duo of Ingram and McCollum should become passing targets for Williamson, when the Pelicans decide to let run the offense, which he did quite a bit during his second season, even adopting the moniker “Point Zion”.
Finally, Valanciunas offers a level of scoring versatility that makes it difficult for any defense to cheat off of Williamson. Valanciunas is not only a rim-scoring center, but he’s turned into a 36.1% shooter from behind the three-point line. This allows Valanciunas to both roll or pop after screens, which Williamson can play off of. This wasn’t the case when Steven Adams was the primary center.
Offense, offense, offense
These Pelicans have the necessary foundation to becoming one of the league’s most explosive offensive units. While Devonte’ Graham has fallen out of favor recently, averaging just 10.8 minutes in the postseason, his ability to pass the ball and spot-up for three-pointers, would make a solid fifth option when New Orleans decide to roll out Valanciunas, Williamson, Ingram, McCollum, and Graham. While it may not be Golden State’s Death Lineup, it should be superbly good offensively, creating the foundation for a highly diverse offense.
Eventually, as Jones grows offensively, he should be able to slide in and replace Graham in such lineups, offering size, defense, and more influential two-way play. Fortunately, Jones is off to a decent start, despite his modest numbers of 9.5 points in just under 30 minutes. The 23-year-old is an underrated passer, and his 2.1 assist rate doesn’t quite do him justice. As he adds some crucial percentage points to his 33.7% accuracy rate from outside, Jones could function as the fifth scoring option, preferably in a high-efficiency role that forces defenses to pick their poison.
Naturally, there’s also three more youth components to consider in Jaxson Hayes, Kira Lewis, and Trey Murphy, all of whom will need to find roles on next year’s team, which due to Williamson should be vastly deeper.
And that brings us full circle, and back to Williamson.
As constructed, the Pelicans have a tremendous amount of talent next to their superstar. More importantly, the talent should fit stylistically with Williamson as he comes back.
Compared to a team like Dallas, where the Mavericks still need more weaponry around Luka Dončić, Williamson is far better off, and the organization is even ahead of the curve in what they’ve achieved since drafting Williamson first overall in 2019.
Now, it’s the responsibility of Williamson to give this thing a chance. At no point during the upcoming offseason can be or his family insinuate the Pelicans behind in the talent department. It would simply be too ridiculous a statement to make.
Of course, that’s not to say Williamson isn’t entitled to want a change of scenery. If he’s determined to go elsewhere, that’s another discussion entirely. But at no point should the argument fall on a lack of roster construction on behalf of the Pelicans. Not after they went above and beyond this year to build a squad that should fit him so seamlessly.