The calendar now flips toward March, and the playoffs are in sight, participants looking all but locked with two-thirds of a season in the rearview. But hold on a minute: Here come Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans to inject a little unpredictability.
Yes, the teenager with the linebacker’s body and a team left for dead are suddenly the best bet to divert attention away from March Madness and toward the final playoff spot in the West.
After missing the first 44 games following arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in October — and the club pumping the brake pedal during rehab — Zion is finally on a first-name basis, looking very much like a franchise player in the making. Once he gets to the rim and winds up, which is often, defenders are advised to wear hard hats. And while his dunks are indeed ferocious, his touch in the paint can also be a grandmother’s kiss. All of this restless energy and production is beginning to announce his arrival, and what’s amazing is that a player on a minutes restriction still hasn’t been fully unleashed.
“What Zion is doing is amazing,” said Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, speaking for all of New Orleans, “and we’re waiting to see what comes next.”
If the basketball gods are feeling guilty about punishing him with that early injury and willing to make things right, then Zion will win Kia Rookie of the Year despite his abbreviated schedule and the Pelicans will snatch the No. 8 playoff spot. That would give the basketball world what it wants: a first-round TV ratings-buster against LeBron James and the Lakers. Both are hopeful scenarios bordering on realistic because the circumstances are finally in favor of New Orleans.
After losing six of seven games to start the season and then taking lumps during a 13-game losing streak in December, the Pelicans are 19-11 since. Much had to do with Brandon Ingram developing into an All-Star, but lately he has qualified as the team’s second-best player — which most expected to happen eventually, but not this soon. From the moment Williamson stepped on the floor for his Jan. 22 debut, Zion has impacted most games and been the difference in more than a handful.
“I missed the first half [of the season], but it’s fun to get out there and be with my teammates,” he said. “It’s great. I’m just trying to get better at everything.”
Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies’ hold on the final playoff spot is greasy. Jaren Jackson Jr. has an achy knee and will be re-evaluated in a few weeks. Likewise, Brandon Clarke has a quad strain and needs a few weeks off at least. Those are two crucial members of the youthful core that juiced Memphis all season and accelerated the club’s rebuilding process.
He’s just incredibly efficient. … Got a good head on his shoulders too, doesn’t seem too affected by all the hype around him.”
Pelicans guard JJ Redick, on Zion Williamson
The Grizzlies also have a difficult remaining schedule, while the Pelicans own the easiest one. March, for New Orleans, brings two games each with Minnesota, Atlanta and Sacramento, with the Knicks and Magic tossed in for comfort. There’s also a pair of Pelicans vs. Grizzlies games that could prove decisive.
Essentially, these are two teams trending in opposite directions — one is healthy and peppered with proven veterans who bring experience in big games, the other is reeling. The Pelicans are three games back with 14 to play with the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs also in the hunt.
Then there’s the matter of the Rookie of the Year award, which was all but shipped to Ja Morant by Christmas, although now, there’s an interesting twist.
If Zion stays on his current pace and the Pelicans take the last playoff spot from Morant and the Grizzlies, wouldn’t that give voters reason to reconsider?
There are no “rules” or fine print that says a player must meet a minimum number of games to be considered for a major award. The NBA just issues the ballots and lets voters use their own criteria. Back in 1985, Patrick Ewing was ROY even though he played just 50 games. What’s the cut-off, if any?
“Look,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, “he’s already one of the 10 best players in the West and I don’t think there’s any question about that. The number of games that he missed is probably a factor, but I do think he can make a strong case for himself if we continue to play at a high level and end up in the playoffs — even after he missed half a season. You can see the impact he’s had on our team. If you go back and add those missed games to the mix, we’re not even having a conversation.”
Another member of the Pelicans organization said: “Even with those missed games, if we had to do the draft all over again, we take Zion. If Memphis had the draft all over again and they had the first pick, who you think they’re taking?”
Zion is already famous for his grin, and that’s all you get on this and other Zion-flavored subjects. He has kept his interviews to a minimum and says little about himself. In the age of branding and chest-thumping, this No. 1 overall pick is a refreshing shift.
“This kid doesn’t care about all that,” Gentry said. “He’s all about the team. He just wants to be one of the guys and do everything he can to help us win games. It’s never about him, he doesn’t want it to be about him. That’s not who he is.”
The Pelicans are taking it easy with Zion by using a short leash, which only makes his performances all the more impressive. He’s averaging 23.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in just 28.4 minutes per game. That’s an astounding amount of force crammed into a small sample size. Even better for the Pelicans, they’re already giving him the ball in big moments, proof that Zion has rapidly won over the team.
“His defense will come along, too,” Gentry said. “With most young players that’s the main thing, getting better defensively. It’s a fast-paced game and the defensive part is where they have to make improvements. But there’s so much to like. He’s a willing passer and will continue to get a feel for what we’re doing. Everything is a natural maturation process.”
This Sunday brings a rematch against LeBron and the Lakers. In their first meeting on Feb. 25, Williamson scored 29 points. He has racked up at least 20 points in 11 of his 13 games and is the first rookie since Michael Jordan to score 20 in eight of his first 10 games. There are no doubters in the locker room.
“He’s probably exceeded expectations,” said guard JJ Redick. “He’s just incredibly efficient. He just has a high level impact when he steps on the floor. I’m not surprised about the impact but how consistent it’s been, which is obviously rare for a 19-year-old. Got a good head on his shoulders too, doesn’t seem too affected by all the hype around him.”
Williamson scores most of his buckets in the paint — very 1980-ish — even as he’s shooting 41.7% from 3-point range. Listed at 285 pounds, he’s blessed with a body that goes wide and quickness that you normally see from players 100 pounds lighter. Williamson also wields crafty low-post skills. He is a nightmare matchup.
What he brings to the table… you just don’t see that from a lot of players.”
Pelicans teammate Jrue Holiday
“What he brings to the table, efficiency and energy and being able to do that with such force,” said Holiday, “you just don’t see that from a lot of players. With Zion coming back, it eases the load for Brandon. Zion is out there taking balls from people, bringing energy in the building with those dunks and all the other things that he does.”
Jumpers can be classified into two categories: Those with vertical lift and those who are quick. Even with a Duke-record-shattering 45-inch vertical, Zion recovers remarkably, which allows him to collect his own missed shots for putbacks.
Of course, those forceful jumps are also viewed skeptically by those who believe Zion is more prone to injury because of them. The Pelicans monitor him differently than most players and the organization places its trust in its medical and performance staff, now considered one of the league’s best after a change in command.
The Pelicans, for now, will continue to limit Williamson to 28 mpg, but that will change at some point.
“We’re still in a position of thinking long-term with him,” Gentry said. “We want to be able to have him for 15 years.”
But first, the Pelicans are concerned about the next 14 games. During the holidays, they were eyeballing the West’s basement. Now, they can envision playing games in late April. With Ingram breaking out, the Pelicans brushed aside their early troubles and kept themselves in the mix while Zion rehabbed, and this is their reward.
“Our group never splintered or fractured,” Redick said. “As we get closer to the end of the season, there’s definitely a feeling of more meaning to every game. We’re still in a hole we dug ourselves. We still have work to do but there’s a feeling of meaning and purpose.”
Meaning and purpose? You can see that every time Zion gets the ball in the sweet spot of the paint. The rookie is better late than never, and rather than bemoaning what could’ve been were he been healthy from the start, the Pelicans are weighing the possibilities that lie ahead.
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