It wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that this year’s New Orleans Pelicans are last year’s Memphis Grizzlies. Two freshmen led by a dynamic young talent – just Zion Williamson for Ja Morant – are rising high in the West and taking the league by surprise, if not by storm.
Or, just maybe, the pelicans were meant and designed to arrive at exactly that time anyway.
A gradual and clever rebuilding from the wreckage caused by Anthony Davis’ forced swap, coupled with Zion’s recovery from injuries last season, has produced the current leader in the West and a contender – already – who hasn’t tasted the season seems to be .
The Pelicans bring rebounds, scoring in the paint, 3-point shooting, a respectable defense, a productive bench and a coach who connects with his talent. Yes, the NBA schedule isn’t halfway through yet, which puts you on the brakes a bit, but: How many teams are this clean across the board?
And then, last weekend, they had a coming out – beating the Suns in a challenging two-game set in which the Pelicans played smarter, more inspired, and took on the challenge far more eagerly than Phoenix.
They’ll need another temperature check this time next week after a Saturday game in Phoenix (9 ET, NBA TV) where the Suns will surely be inspired, and a Monday game against Milwaukee. These teams are more proven, established winners with a larger sample size. Still, the Pelicans are firing a league-wide warning shot after seven straight wins and, as a huge bonus, expect Brandon Ingram to come back from a toe injury any day.
They’ve also won 14 of their last 16 games, an impressive stretch like any other, losing only to the Celtics and Grizzlies. No shame in that. For context: Zion missed the Boston game; meanwhile, CJ McCollum was out against the Grizzlies and Ingram suffered a toe injury in the second quarter.
Therefore: With the possible exception of the Celtics, not a team has romped around like the Pelicans, who announce their arrival by barking through a megaphone, in three weeks.
“I know it’s not a big deal for a lot of people because it’s early in the season,” Williamson said, “but to have this ranking now is great. We don’t just want to stick to that, we want to build on it.”
Most of the fun, of course, is made possible by Zion. The compressed frustration that he’s only played 85 games in a three-year career is finally wearing off and he’s looking more comfortable by the week. During the winning streak, Zion averaged 30.0 points with 66.9% shooting and 9.0 rebounds. If it stays that way much longer and the Pelicans keep winning, he’ll become a contender in the Kia MVP chatter if he’s not already on the agenda.
Western Conference Player of the Week things 🔥
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) December 12, 2022
That was always one of his goals; Ahead of the season and when it became clear that his injury woes were in the past, Williamson said, “I want to be among the best, and I want this team to be among the best too.”
That became pretty clear when Zion executed a 360 Windmill Dunk to end the first of two wins over Phoenix. While the Suns got angry and yelled that Zion had broken a valuable unwritten rule – the Pelicans had the game in the bag – they failed to take into account the level of anger Zion felt at being injured for so long and with all to deal with the skepticism of it.
This 360 wasn’t just for the Suns. This dunk was for all he had to endure. It was a kind of revenge for the injustice of his injuries. Or an answer from Zion to all the doubts he has heard about himself in the most forceful way he can deliver.
Zion is the most efficient big scorer in the NBA, shooting 61%, amazing for a 6ft 6 player but understandable given how relentless he is to the basket. He’s taking fewer 3 points — just 14 all season — than any of the league’s top 15 scorers, even fewer than DeMar DeRozan, the game’s premier midfield specialist. Everything about Zion is unique in relation to today’s analytics-dominated game: its size for a power player, its disregard for deep shots, and its speed for its size.
And it all works.
“Someone mentioned Lawrence Taylor as a comp from another sport, someone who was such a complete stranger at the time he was playing,” said Pelicans basketball chief David Griffin. “And maybe that’s true, and maybe Zion is in some ways like Charles Barkley. But I don’t think there really is a comp for Zion in this game right now. Zion is special and we’re really, really blessed that he can do the things that he can do. Luckily for us, he’s not the type of player who thinks it’s all about him.”
Because what also works is the blueprint that Griffin has been creating for the last two years. While waiting for Zion to fully heal, Griffin found uncut gems in Herbert Jones (a second-round pick) and Jose Alvarado (undrafted). He also sent Josh Hart and role players for McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. to Portland and sent more role players for Jonas Valanciunas and Trey Murphy to Memphis. Suddenly, a franchise rocked by the departure of Davis had a foundation.
Jones is a flowing small forward with a touch of old school. He broke through in the playoffs last season as the Pelicans pushed the Suns to six games. Alvarado also made a name for himself on the show, mostly as a constant annoyance to Chris Paul. And what also makes Alvarado special is his tendency to play 94 feet, press the ball in backcourt and sneak up to steal incoming passes. He earned the backup point guard spot ahead of Devonte’ Graham, who signed as a free agent just a few years ago.
New Orleans just extended Nance’s contract by two years at reasonable money, a wise decision given what Nance brings to the dressing room and also his ability to recover and defend. Murphy is slowly improving almost through the game bringing 3 point shooting (40%) and will also score on the edge.
Griffin’s big signing was McCollum, a veteran with a polished offensive game that doesn’t rely too much on the deep shot. McCollum can create his own shot, similar to Zion and Ingram, giving the Pelicans three players who can create offense from the rebound.
It all works for a team that revolves around a rising Superstar, but isn’t thriving because of him alone.
“People forget that the group that we had on the court in the playoffs last year (without Zion) also had a hell of a run at the end of the year,” Griffin said. “We were 10-2 when Brandon and CJ played the last 12 games together.”
Griffin also found the right coach in Willie Green, a freshman who enjoys the confidence of the players, especially after Green didn’t panic when the Pelicans started 1-12 last season. Since then it has been bliss. The Pelicans finished 36-46, used the play-in tournament to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018, and then pushed the Suns through six grueling first-round games.
Zion watched from the bench, burning inside and waiting for his chance. And now he and the pelicans are finally whole and understandably feeling frisky here in the first place.
Which means a once wayward franchise is going to make a 180 and therefore insanely celebrate Zion Williamson’s 360, even if others won’t understand the math.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can email him here, his archive can be found here and keep following him Twitter.
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