The RingerThe “Big” Question Surrounding Zion Williamson’s Return
The no. 1 pick is finally about to make his regular-season NBA debut, but the suddenly pesky Pelicans face a dilemma about the best way to use him. How should New Orleans spend his minutes?
Zion Williamson is returning to a better situation than it appeared a few weeks ago. The Pelicans were one of the first half’s most disappointing teams following the no. 1 pick’s preseason meniscus surgery. But they have shown signs of life recently, going 5-2 over the past seven games, including a Christmas Day win in Denver. Zion is expected to make his long-awaited NBA debut soon, which will increase the spotlight on the team considerably. New Orleans will have an interesting decision to make once he’s up to speed.Spoiler:
There were a lot of questions about how all of the new faces in New Orleans would fit together this season. But Gentry seems to have found something recently by starting Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Jrue Holiday, and Brandon Ingram around Derrick Favors. Lonzo and Ingram have both made dramatic improvements after coming over from the Lakers this summer in the Anthony Davis trade.
The Pelicans can now run pick-and-rolls with either Ingram or Holiday (who is still an elite two-way guard) with Favors screening, while Ball and Redick help space the floor.
The biggest concern with Zion’s return is that he could mess up their spacing if he’s playing next to Favors. The Pelicans have been one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the NBA this season (no. 5 in 3-point attempts per game and no. 7 in 3-point percentage). Playing Zion and Favors together would change that. Neither can threaten the defense from the perimeter.
Blake Griffin is the cautionary tale hanging over Zion. He was just as good of an athlete when he came into the league a decade ago, dunking on everyone in his path. And like Zion, he injured his knee in the preseason as a rookie. Griffin has been steadily declining physically over the past few years...There’s just no way to know how Zion’s body will respond to the NBA. We’ve never seen a player like him before—he’s almost 40 pounds heavier than Griffin.
Zion might be skilled enough to make it work in limited minutes. He’s a good passer who knows how to cut and move without the ball, which would allow him to occupy the defense when he’s not involved in the play. But the best version of the Pelicans will likely be with Zion at the 5, not the 4.
Believe it or not, the rebuild could already be over in New Orleans. For as bad as they were in the first two months of the season, they are not that far away. All they were missing was a center who could hold their own. Favors has been good in that role, but Zion could be great. The Pelicans have the pieces to succeed if they play him at the 5. It just remains to be seen how much they will.
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