Moore: What Zion Williamson’s Debut Means for the Pelicans

Moore: What Zion Williamson’s Debut Means for the Pelicans article feature image
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Photo credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images. Pictured: Zion Williamson

Zion Williamson is back. Mighty Mjolnir, the hammer from the heavens, returns to the earthly realm.

So what does this mean for the Pelicans?

What I can’t tell you: how to bet the Pelicans with Williamson on the team, whether they’re worth a future playoff prop or what he means to the line.

But if we’re going to explore the impact of Williamson’s return, there are things of which we can be certain.

IF HE’S NOT GETTING NUMBERS, IT’S A RED FLAG

The Pelicans play so fast (fifth-highest pace) that Zion is just going to have a ton of opportunities. Not only with touches, but offensive rebounds, loose-ball situations, etc. The Pelicans are also fifth in fastbreak points per 100 possessions. They absolutely fly up and down the court.

Points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks… he should absolutely drive up the box score numbers. The question will be with the impact.

THE DEFENSE IS THE SWING VOTE

Derrick Favors came back, and briefly the Pelicans looked better defensively, but that’s normalized and they’re back to being really bad on that end. Favors has a Defensive Rating over 111, slightly worse than when he’s on the bench.

Will playing Williamson next to Favors improve the defense just through sheer athleticism?

The Pelicans are actually decent against forwards and centers. The Pels are 11th-best in opposing forwards points allowed per 100 possessions and 17th in opposing center points allowed. Their problem is the guards, where they are dead last in opponent scoring and somehow still fifth-worst in points in the paint allowed per 100 possessions.

Their perimeter contain is among the worst in the league. The question is whether Zion can swarm the paint and deter enough shots, draw enough charges, etc. to make a difference there.

One area he will help is just grabbing boards. New Orleans is 17th in opposing offensive rebound percentage allowed and gives up the 11th-most second-chance points per 100 possessions.

That said, Zion is also likely to pick up a high rate of fouls, just by not knowing what he’s doing yet and being so excited to play.

THE OFFENSE WILL BE FITS AND STARTS

Brandon Ingram’s emergence complicates this. Ingram’s a willing passer, and he and Zion might click immediately and slaughter teams. Just giving Ingram and Jrue Holiday someone who can set a good enough screen to create separation has value.

But Ingram plays a lot to the sides in pick-and-rolls seeking out the pull-up jumper, and those lobs are tougher. Holiday, on the other hand, should absolutely roll with Williamson. Using Holiday and Zion in a mid-transition pick-and-roll with Ingram spotting up is a nightmare.

Lonzo Ball, who is having a good month shooting (as he seems to do one month every year), will fit seamlessly with Williamson. It’s not just the insane athleticism: Williamson is an incredibly savvy player with a nose for the ball. Those two will understand how to navigate space effectively.

E’Twaun Moore is going to see fewer touches, but he’s going to get great looks from what they generate.

If there’s any one real benefit to Zion in the way the Pelicans play this year, it’s that it’s largely disorganized. They push the pace so much that if you’re just individually superior to the guys in front of you, you have a lot of opportunities.

Zion is going to make mistakes, and I think we’re all going to be holding our breath throughout his career for the explosiveness he holds in that frame. He hasn’t lost weight in his time away from the court, and a guy that size, with those moves, is always going to be a little frightening to watch on multiple fronts.

Williamson’s debut will be widely-watched and heavily scrutinized. He may struggle specifically vs. the strength of LaMarcus Aldridge inside. But his overall effect on the Pelicans should be a net positive. Whether that’s enough to make the playoffs will depend on whether he can manage mistakes and how the complicated dynamics of chemistry play out.