Zion Williamson will be a Pelican, But What’s Next for Big Easy Basketball?

14:58 May 15, 2019
By: Reed Darcey

Tuesday's NBA Draft Lottery will enter the history books as one of the most significant events in New Orleans sports history.

The drawing improbably awarded the New Orleans Pelicans with the first overall selection in June's draft, a scenario that only had a 6% chance of occurring.

It also marked the beginning of the Zion Williamson era in the Crescent City. The Pelicans will select the universally acclaimed phenom with their pick and enter into a pivotal summer, one that can shape the team for years to come. Pelicans fans, after a year of gloom, finally have reason to look forward to the team's future.

Before he arrived in Durham, Williamson's physics-defying dunks, distributed to millions through social media, turned an ordinary teenager into a viral sensation. "I've never seen an athlete like him," said ESPN's Jay Bilas before the season even began. Duke measured Williamson's vertical leap at 45 inches, a height slightly shorter than the NBA combine record, held by Kenny Gregory, who weighed 85 fewer pounds than Williamson.

Williamson's incredible statistical portfolio may be even more impressive than his athleticism.

He ended his freshman season with per-game averages of 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.8 blocks, becoming the only freshman ever to average at least 20-9-2-2-1.

Williamson's effective field goal percentage of 70.8% falls a tenth of a percentage shy of the all-time record.

He is the only player this decade to log at least 400 minutes on the floor and post an efficiency rating over 40.

Offensive rating calculates the points a player scores per 100 possessions, and a player's defensive rating is an estimate of the points per 100 possessions he allows. The gap between Williamson's offensive rating (133.1) and defensive rating (87.4) is the largest ever recorded by a high-usage player.

Williamson posted the first box plus-minus over 20, indicating that, per 100 possessions, he adds 20 points of overall value more than an average player.

His profound athleticism stocks his vast arsenal of basketball weaponry and gives him the requisite versatility to profoundly affect the game, a notion evident in his statistical output. Williamson's versatility launches him to the stratosphere of the most elite prospects.

However, Williamson must make a few key adjustments to his game before he can maximize his immense talent.

He is a clumsy shooter. He needs to fine-tune his mechanics, hopefully until he can comfortably pull-up in transition. This step is critical.

Williamson should attack the lane with more control and add more variety to his drives and post-ups.

His defensive focus can improve, as well as his selectivity in attempting steals and blocks.

His flaws, however, will not prevent him from immediately making an impact.

A skilled ball-handler, Williamson can run screen-and-rolls effectively in the half-court and terrorize defenses in transition.

He can also be a screener in pick-and-rolls, for his footwork and quickness grant him access to tiny openings in the lane and to the rim, where he excels at finishing at awkward angles and through contact. He can pass off rolls to the rim, and he understands the basics of post play.

On defense, Williamson is the rare athlete who can defend all five positions. He will give the Pelicans liberty to switch certain pick-and-rolls, or he can fight through screens. He can cover ground rapidly to invade a passing lane or swat away a shot before an opposing player can blink. He hustles for loose balls and has the size, strength, and bounce to develop into an elite rebounder.

Who wouldn't want to team up with a player like Williamson? Pelicans fans hope that the lure of Williamson entices Anthony Davis into a return to the Big Easy. In the coming days, President of Basketball Operations David Griffin plans to meet with Davis to sell him on the team's future. The chances that Davis rescinds his trade demand are slim. But then again, so were the Pelicans's odds to win the lottery.

Davis requested a trade from the team's old administration. Since his request, Gayle Benson has morphed the team into almost an entirely different organization and awarded full autonomy to Griffin, who brought with him pedigree and professionalism.

A lot has changed since Griffin's introductory press conference, where he sent a clear message to Davis: "Either you're all the way in, or all the way out." Even if Davis walks away from the meeting committed to his trade request, should Griffin decide not to oblige by it?

Once upon a time, Davis wanted to win in New Orleans. From a basketball perspective, he and Williamson fit perfectly. Success next to Williamson and Jrue Holiday would give him an opportunity to reverse his heel turn, rehabbing his image around the league and repairing his relationship with fans. From a marketing perspective, Davis may be overshadowed by Williamson. But, it is important to note that his fame may have to take a back seat wherever he goes, behind LeBron James in L.A., Kevin Durant (presumably) in New York, or Kyrie Irving (presumably) in Boston.

Griffin and Gentry are likely salivating at the possibility of Williamson-Davis screen-and-rolls. The hope may be too tantalizing to trade Davis immediately. Next season could open with a refreshing enthusiasm, spirit, or energy, and a successful playoff run could suck Davis back in.

Or, if the year goes awry, Davis could be dealt at the deadline, albeit for less than what he could fetch in July. The malaise of the post-Davis-trade-request Pelicans could also carry over to the fall and float over the team for months, sapping the initial excitement of the Williamson era and giving the team's young phenom a negative first impression of the team. Right now, what the team's opening night roster will look like is uncertain.

However, a couple things are certain: the Davis trade decision will be immensely difficult and consequential. And Pelicans fans, for the first time in a long time, should have faith in the team's leadership and optimism for the team's direction.

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