2024 SoFi Play-In Tournament

Zion Williamson learns from mistakes as Play-In Tournament stage awaits

The New Orleans star says he has grown from his shortcomings and knows he must 'handle business' in the Play-In.

Pelicans star Zion Williamson is hoping his 1st postseason trip — which begins with a Play-In game Tuesday — is a lengthy one.

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Zion Williamson plied the trade his way.

It worked, too. Temporarily, at least.

In Year 1, he ranked first among rookies in points per game (22.5), second in rebounds per game (6.3) and became the first rookie since Michael Jordan to rack up 16 20-point performances within their first 20 outings. He earned NBA All-Rookie First Team recognition.

Williamson’s sophomore season brought about more with his first NBA All-Star nod.

It seemed almost too easy for the explosive wrecking ball top pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, who was always bigger, stronger and faster than the competition.

But what is tried and true in the NBA is how opposing players and teams unfailingly adjust.

Williamson learned this the hard way through a string of injuries, (one that forced him to miss all of 2021-22 and another last season that limited him to just 29 games), uneven performances and constant scrutiny regarding his weight and physical conditioning. It all came to a head on Dec. 7 after a 133-89 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the In-Season Tournament.

Coincidentally, the No. 7 New Orleans Pelicans host those eighth-seeded Lakers in the SoFi NBA Play-In Tournament on Tuesday night (7:30 ET, TNT).

But that In-Season Tournament matchup in December resonates to this day. It marked what some within the Pelicans organization view as a turning point in Williamson’s progression.

He failed — on the national stage — to conduct business his way.

Now, it was time to try something new.

“I’ve got to be better,” Williamson said after that loss. “I think I was too laid-back tonight and I just can’t do that. Defensively, I’ve got to be better.”

The 23-year-old finished with 13 points, two rebounds, three assists and three turnovers during a woeful 26 minutes in which Los Angeles outscored New Orleans by 33 points when he was on the court.

With a chance to avoid the Play-In Tournament altogether Sunday in the regular-season finale against those same Lakers, Williamson and the Pelicans fell again, 124-108.

Williamson finished a minus-21 and committed a team-high tying four turnovers as the Lakers scored 27 points off New Orleans’ 19 giveaways.

“I think I was just being too passive if I’m being honest,” he said after the loss. “I don’t think I was super aggressive the whole game.”

Sound familiar?

Introspection leads to turning point

Zion Williamson and the Pelicans have turned things around since their Dec. 8 loss to the Lakers in the In-Season Tournament.

To his credit, Williamson understands his gravity. He knows what he means to the organization and how its overall success hinges on his availability, production and acumen on and off the court. So, after the loss to the Lakers at the In-Season Tournament, Williamson embarked on a quest for answers to how he could best serve the team.

That experience profoundly affected him, along with the November birth of his daughter.

Naturally, the journey led to critical self-evaluation. Williamson searched within to exhaust every resource for more consistency on the floor. The two-time All-Star understood he needed to “stack days” as Pelicans coach Willie Green puts it, grinding behind the scenes to supercharge his physical conditioning.

He understood his way no longer worked.

Williamson eventually melted off a reported 25 pounds or more throughout a process that involved extra conditioning sessions and multiple workouts every day with assistant coach Aaron Miles and player development coach Corey Brewer. Some within the organization believe Williamson now attacks practices rather than simply enduring them.

Known before as one of the last to arrive and first to leave, Williamson accrued the sweat equity that resonates now with teammates. Defensive stalwart Herbert Jones played a role in instilling that work ethic within the entire team.

Williamson snatched the baton and ran with it.

“In terms of stacking my days, it’s just doing all the little things: recovery, extra recovery, conditioning,” he said. “When we’re in practice, [it’s] just bringing a high intensity so that my body can be used to that.”

Green played a part in ratcheting up the force, too.

During the club’s first live practice back from All-Star break, the coach placed Williamson and second-leading scorer Brandon Ingram on opposite teams. That session turned into one of the team’s most competitive up to that point in the season and continued.

Williamson hasn’t stopped, either.

That’s most apparent on the defensive end of the floor. In the past, Williamson took a more measured approach on defense seemingly to avoid injury. Williamson trusts his body because he’s put in the work to ensure good health and productivity.

During the team’s 4-0 road trip out West near the end of the regular season, Williamson blocked a career-high five shots April 7 at Phoenix before notching a career-high six steals five nights later at Golden State.

“Trust,” Williamson said when asked about the team’s biggest area of growth from the beginning of the season to now.

“That goes for the players and the coaches. I think at the beginning of the season we were all hyped. But we weren’t all bought in fully. When you watch us play now, you see it on offense and defense. We’re all bought in, and we all trust each other. Any team that wins a championship, they have ultimate trust in each other.”

Pelicans’ big issue to solve

Park a big near the basket, throw multiple bodies at Williamson when he drives and watch New Orleans crumble into rubble.

Opponents deployed various versions of the tactic throughout a six-game homestand from late March to early April as the Pelicans finished 1-5. They still haven’t found a consistently effective counter. Remember that Ingram, a gifted scorer and facilitator, missed all of those contests due to a bone contusion in his left knee as part of a 12-game absence.

Ingram returned for the season finale against the Lakers. But he’s not fully up to speed yet.

So, taking away Williamson has been key in stymying the Pelicans. Green tried utilizing smaller lineups during that period with Williamson at the five but experienced only fleeting success.

When opponents camped centers in the lane, leaving Jonas Valanciunas or Larry Nance Jr. essentially alone, New Orleans tried swinging the ball to a big on the opposite wing, who could quickly distribute it to a shooter.

“Teams are gonna load up on Z,” Nance said. “Teams load up on your best player. We’re gonna see that in the playoffs. We’re gonna see that tomorrow, the next game, the next game and the next game. We’ve just got to continue to work space around him.”

Still, nothing has proven effective consistently.

“Zion’s got to continue to navigate those concepts,” Green said. “It’s OK to hit our five spaced out because our fives can make plays to our wings, guards, and it’s hard for the big to get back. Another adjustment for us is just going small and having them guard us. Mostly, their fives are leaving and they’re tracking Z.

“So, it’s hard if we hit them now to go second side to somebody, for them to get back and contest those shots. It’s a matter of continuing to work on it.”

Pressure isn’t all on Williamson

Throughout New Orleans’ most recent struggles, Green stressed that his team’s margin for error shrunk without Ingram and Jose Alvarado on the floor.

Alvarado sat out five straight games from March 28 to April 5 but returned for the final five games of the regular season. Ingram, meanwhile, rejoined New Orleans for Sunday’s loss to the Lakers, scoring 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting in 23 minutes.

“The story was already written,” Ingram said. “Tonight was supposed to happen. It’s all in how I take it and respond. The knee felt pretty good tonight, felt pretty strong. So, I’m ready to move on and continue to play. We got hit in the mouth. I think we’ll be able to respond knowing what’s at stake.”

New Orleans started the work on that process Monday at practice. After making many adjustments to compensate for Ingram’s absence, the team must tweak things to accommodate his return.

“He’s a huge part of what we do,” Green said. “That’s what we’re doing now, talking about our rotations, getting B.I. back on the floor, get[ting] him up to speed.”

New Orleans enters the Play-In Tournament on Tuesday near full health. With Ingram returning to the starting group, perhaps New Orleans can fully activate its arsenal of young weaponry for the first time in a while.

We tend to forget about the stifling defense of Jones, a likely All-NBA defender, CJ McCollum’s veteran leadership, or the impactful contributions off the bench from players such as Alvarado, Trey Murphy III and Dyson Daniels.

Before an April 5 matchup against the Pelicans, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich cautioned his team to avoid Jones “like the plague.”

“I told my guys, ‘If he’s there, pass it to someone else,’” Popovich joked.

In all seriousness, New Orleans certainly needs more than just Williamson to come through against this Lakers team that is 3-1 this season vs. the Pelicans. Los Angeles’ size and physicality have proven problematic with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Rui Hachimura wreaking havoc in the frontcourt.

The Lakers outscored New Orleans 50-12 in the paint in the first half alone Sunday before winning that battle 68-42. They’ve defeated the Pelicans by 25.6 points in three games.

Since entering the NBA in 2019, Williamson hasn’t tasted the postseason. This matchup represents a shot at redemption. The last time Williamson stepped on a stage this grand, he experienced the pain of a moment that might’ve changed his career forever.

“I don’t have to explain it,” Williamson said. “We all kind of know the Play-In Tournament, the layout. We’ve just got to handle business. Easier said than done, but it’s what we’ve got to do. We’re grateful for the opportunity.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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