The Pelicans Are Finding Their Way Without Zion Williamson

Last month, Zion Williamson threw the ball off the backboard, caught it in the air, crossed it between his legs and threw down a dunk before descending back to earth. This month, he drove to the paint, leaped up from the restricted circle and launched into a 360-degree slam. These were the Cirque du Soleil-style highlights that Pelicans fans hoped to see Williamson perform nightly after New Orleans drafted him with the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft.

The only problem? Neither of those highlight-reel plays took place during a game. The first was posted to Williamson’s Instagram story from an empty gym, and the second came during the pregame warm-ups before the Pelicans defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in the play-in tournament.

It’s been almost a year since Williamson last played in a live game, resulting in foot surgery that has been painfully slow to heal. Without him, the Pelicans have an amazing playoff run and are giving the top-seeded Phoenix Suns all they can handle in their first-round series. The Pelicans’ performance has left basketball fans everywhere – and especially in New Orleans – wondering how good this young team could be if Williamson was there.

The Pelicans tied the series, 2-2, with an energetic 118-103 victory at home over Phoenix on Sunday. The Suns were up by 2 at halftime, but New Orleans outscored them by 12 in the third quarter and led by as many as 18 en route to the win. The home crowd was rocking – the kind of atmosphere that could become routine as the team continued to find itself, with and without Williamson.

As a high schooler, Williamson was hyped like no player since LeBron James. His high-flying dunks made him a social media celebrity and a sought-after recruit, but some scouts wondered if a 6-foot-6, 280-pound forward could thrive in college basketball or the NBA in his single season at Duke, Williamson No doubts about his abilities. In his collegiate debut against Kentucky, he scored 28 points in 23 minutes at 11-for-13 shooting and produced several mind-boggling highlights of the first when he blocked a 7-footer’s shot with both hands before a fast break and finding RJ Barrett for a bucket in transition.

During that Duke season, Williamson’s dunks continued to peel off the paint and rim the air on “SportsCenter.” But he proved to be more than a human highlight reel. He showed an uncanny knack for watching passing lanes before they appeared on offense – and for cutting them off on defense, where he averaged 2.1 steals per game. The Blue Devils often played at Williamson at 5, and defended the rim admirably, averaging 1.8 blocks per game.

“This kid is – he’s just one of a kind,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters in March 2019. “He’s definitely a special basketball player, but as a youngster, he’s a maturity. It’s uncommon. It really is uncommon. How humble he is. How fresh, exciting. He’s exquisite. He is just the best. “

One of the most memorable moments of Williamson’s college career is on the road against No. 3 Virginia, he pulled off a seemingly impossible block against a future top-five pick, De’Andre Hunter. After initially defending guard Kyle Guy outside the 3-point line, Williamson chased a pass to a wide-open Hunter in the opposite corner. Covering 25 feet in two seconds, Williamson launches as if from Cape Canaveral and swatted Hunter’s shot into the fourth row of the stand.

After tearing his meniscus in the 2019 NBA preseason, Williamson appeared in only 24 games during his first season in New Orleans. Nonetheless, he was named to the NBA All-Rookie first team. The following season, he averaged 27 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game on the way to his first All-Star selection. He proved to be one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA, shooting one point better than 50 percent from the floor in 25 consecutive games. His average of 20.3 points in the paint per game was more than any player since Shaquille O’Neal. It’s Williamson’s ability to score easily in halfcourt sets that New Orleans has missed most this year.

With Williamson sidelined again this season, the Pelicans looked listless to start the year. They won just one game in their first 13 and spent most of the first three months in the Western Conference cellar. But Willie Green, his first-year head coach, didn’t manage to let the team linger on questions of when Williamson would return. Instead, he focuses on developing other young stars: Trey Murphy, a first-round pick; Herbert Jones, a second-round pick; And the undrafted point guard Jose Alvarado has emerged as surprisingly mature and effective rookies. As the trade deadline approached, the Pelicans had a pesky and physically defensive team and had to climb to 10th place in the West.

Trading with the Portland Trail Blazers for guard CJ McCollum took some of the offensive pressure off his leading scorer, Brandon Ingram, and gave the Pelicans a much-needed veteran leader in the locker room. Ingram and McCollum have developed a quick chemistry playing in just 15 games together during the regular season. When McCollum and Ingram shared the floor with center Jonas Valanciunas, the Pelicans posted an astounding 119.2 points per 100 possessions. The strengths that the team has developed – from rebounding to transition offense to points in the paint – perfectly suit Williamson’s skills. And when New Orleans’ offense stagnates in the halfcourt, it’s not hard to imagine how much more pressure it could put on defenses with a 60 percent shooter in its arsenal.

In the preliminary matchups against a healthy Williamson, the Suns are often assigned to guard him at 6-foot-11 center Deandre Ayton. When Williamson pulled Ayton out to the perimeter, the driving lanes that once resembled the freeway suddenly opened on a Friday afternoon. There is no doubt that a healthy Williamson will have an impact on this series. With the Suns’ starting shooting guard, Devin Booker, sidelined because of a hamstring injury, the return of Williamson could transform the series. And even if he wasn’t able to put New Orleans on top of the reigning NBA champions, his presence would be an opportunity for the Pelicans’ core players to get experience playing together in high-stakes situations.

According to ESPN, Williamson and the franchise have a “difference of opinion” about who is healthy enough to play. But the team has not officially ruled him out. Whatever tension exists between Williamson and the Pelicans is likely to spill over into the off-season, with Williamson eligible for a rookie max extension being played in just 85 games in three seasons.

“Some things need to be private, but I would say this: What Z is going through is extremely difficult,” Green told reporters in February. “As a player and person, I’ve gone through injuries. No excuses made on my part, but it’s difficult. You ‘re weighing a lot at those moments. You ‘re weighing when you’ re going to continue to play. A lot goes through your head. For us here, for me, it’s compassion and having an understanding of what he has to go through to get healthy. “

Until Williamson’s return, all that is left for his fans to do is rewatch old highlights, overanalyze new ones and wonder what could be.

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