NBA

NBA 2022-23: Zion Williamson 'changed', so did the Pelicans... now, can they contend?

By Sports Desk October 12, 2022

"I got a new team since the last time I played," Zion Williamson said following his preseason debut at the start of the month.

This was scarcely an exaggeration; the New Orleans Pelicans only retain five players from when Williamson last played in the NBA in May 2021. Naji Marshall – a rookie in 2020-21 – was the sole other member of the starting five in the preseason win over the Chicago Bulls that Williamson would have been familiar with.

"I'm still learning some of the guys," he added.

Crucially, though, Williamson had left behind a losing team. Without him, the Pelicans learnt to win – and he must now fit into that.

Williamson was typically influential in his last regular season outing against the Golden State Warriors – his 23 points marking a 15th straight game in which he scored 20 or more.

Damian Lillard was the only other player to achieve two such streaks of 15 games or more in the 2020-21 season, with Williamson's 25-game sequence – which ended with 16 points against the Brooklyn Nets around a month earlier – the longest of the year.

Of Williamson's final 41 games of the campaign, he scored 20 or more points in 40 of them, averaging 28.7 per game over this stretch.

But the Pelicans lost marginally more of those games than they won (20-21) and were outside the 2020-21 Western Conference play-in places when he was ruled out with a fractured finger.

New Orleans still undoubtedly had a better team with Williamson in it, though, going 1-5 the rest of the way to remain in 11th in the West and miss the playoffs for a third straight season.

Over the two seasons that followed the Pelicans taking Williamson with the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, their winning percentage without the forward (35.6) was far lower than with him involved (47.1) – a sample size that was far bigger than they would have hoped, given Williamson missed 59 games.

Williamson's 2,187 points to date – equating to 25.7 points per game – rank second since the NBA-ABA merger for the most through 85 career games. The sole man ahead of him is Michael Jordan (2,387 – 28.1).

This is fine company to be keeping, but Jordan, despite a broken foot, played his 86th NBA game in his second season; Williamson's will come in his fourth.

 

With the Pelicans already struggling with such a talent in their ranks, the fractured foot Williamson himself sustained a year ago that ultimately kept him out for the entirety of the 2021-22 season was an obvious concern.

As it was, forced to accept Williamson's absence, New Orleans adapted. They were undoubtedly better for it, too, but have work to do to again incorporate one of the most talented players in the league.

Williamson's role on the Pelicans had understandably dominated the narrative around the team for two years. It took time for the Pels to work out how best to use a forward with the physical attributes to play center and the playmaking ability to play 'Point Zion'.

So, it took time again to adjust to the considerable hole his injury left in the line-up, with Williamson having led New Orleans in usage rate in both 2019-20 (29.9 per cent) and 2020-21 (also 29.9).

After a big opening-day loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, rookie Herb Jones was inserted into the line-up as Pelicans coach Willie Green named an unchanged team in five straight games. The Pels lost four of them.

That line-up did not start another game all season, but Green's attempts to find a quick fix were similarly fruitless, with the team 1-12 almost a month into the season and the coach explaining: "Until we get it right, we have to continue to make adjustments and see what works."

Eventually, on November 24, those adjustments led to a line-up showing only one change from those imbalanced early attempts – Josh Hart in for Nickeil Alexander-Walker – and the Pelicans beat the Washington Wizards by 25 points.

Between that game and a win at the Houston Rockets in early February – the final time that line-up was used – those five had a 12-7 record as starters versus 6-9 for all other New Orleans line-ups combined.

Yet even with center Jonas Valanciunas contributing handily, the Pelicans were still relying too much on Brandon Ingram's scoring, having lost not just Williamson but also the only three guards to have 10 or more 20-point games for the team over the previous two seasons combined (Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and JJ Redick).

Needing more from their back court, a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers, who New Orleans had just passed in the standings, saw both Hart and Alexander-Walker sacrificed for CJ McCollum.

It was a risk that was richly rewarded, as McCollum scored 20 or more points in 20 of his 26 games for the Pelicans, averaging a career-high 24.3. Meanwhile, Ingram sat for most of March through injury – a setback that would have been far more damaging without McCollum – but still averaged 22.0 following his new team-mate's debut.

The Pelicans had averaged 105.9 points per game before the trade; that shot up to 115.9 after McCollum's arrival, improving from 14th in the West in scoring to sixth. A 14-14 record was unspectacular but this time enough to make the play-in.

McCollum and Ingram combined for 59 points in a win over the San Antonio Spurs and then 49 to upset the Los Angeles Clippers, reaching a first-round series with the number one seed Phoenix Suns, who were taken to six games as Ingram averaged a series-high 27.0.

The Pelicans finished their season with a defeat but also with momentum. Williamson signed his five-year, $193million rookie max extension at the start of July.

If New Orleans were a .500 team without their best player, there is the potential for them to do something really special this year with him back on the court.

"I want to prove that I'm a winner, it's as simple as that," Williamson said as he signed his contract, outlining the "ultimate goal" to win a title.

More recently, Williamson has detailed a mentality shift during the offseason as he spent two months in Fort Lauderdale working with a strength and conditioning coach.

"The best way to describe it is I found true resolve within the game of basketball," he said. "Something mentally in me shifted, changed, and the game of basketball... that's it for me. That's my love, it's what I want to do.

"I'm just excited to get out there and show the world what I can do."

Ingram was injured again as preseason got under way, so Williamson will start the season still learning how best to share the ball with his fellow forward as well as new man McCollum, although few would doubt he has the talent and versatility to adjust with time.

Once that process is completed, finding a way to keep Williamson fit may be the Pelicans' biggest concern – just as it always has been.

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