With the NBA’s media days in full swing, one of the biggest and most exciting developments came from the New Orleans Pelicans. With lots of promising young talent and an All-Star level player in Brandon Ingram, the organization seems primed for a big year. Yet their true ceiling hinges on the play, and health, of their cornerstone: Zion Williamson.
This is why it was important to see Zion in great spirits when speaking to the media about how he sees this coming season unfolding. Not only that, but he also openly discussed the fact that he feels right like this is the best that he has ever been. Entering his third season — he missed all of last year with a foot injury — and after appearing in only 85 regular season games, is a huge breakout coming?
At his best both physically and mentally, Zion Williamson will torment the West.
Zion will have picked a great time to come back better than ever as well. Still somehow only 22 years old, much has been made since he entered the league about his weight issues. We hear all the time about players gaining 20 pounds of muscle during the offseason, but at NBA Media Day, it was clear that Zion Williamson has been putting in work.
This is great news for a Pelicans franchise that could be about to strike while the iron is hot. For all of the positivity rightly surrounding the team right now, the exact opposite was occurring across the conference in Arizona. The Phoenix Suns look in poor shape heading into the season, with both Jae Crowder and even Deandre Ayton not exactly thrilled to be there.
With the Suns reeling, the Los Angeles Lakers clearly a level below contention and the Portland Trail Blazers trying to find their footing, already there is an opportunity for the Pelicans to get into the playoff conversation early. The likes of the Minnesota Timberwolves may have had a splashier summer, but the consistency and internal growth in New Orleans will be key to their improvement.
So too will the play of Williamson, who has already shown what a beast he can be when on the court. He had one of the more memorable NBA debuts this century, and the last time he was healthy averaged 27 points and 7.2 rebounds. The 3-point shooting was rocky at a shade under 30 percent, but Williamson took those with confidence even then.
To have achieved all of that while playing on an inferior version of the Pelicans, and while clearly not as fit and healthy as he is now, is a terrifying prospect for the other fringe contenders in the Western Conference. Zion never got the chance to play with C.J. McCollum, and the two-man game they could run from time to time might become the bread and butter of their offense.
That’s without even mentioning Ingram, who has been an All-Star and is going to be right at home next to the wrecking ball that is Williamson’s inside presence and game. Can you imagine lineups where the Pelicans use Zion Williamson next to Herb Jones and Jonas Valanciunas? Opponents might not score a point all game.
While that might not equate to much offensively, the safe bet here is that Zion will take another leap forward in that area. He is too athletic not to explode to the rim at will, and all of that time off should mean that his jump shot is fluid as well. That’s not to say that it wasn’t before, and again the confidence he already showed in taking those shots will once again be evident.
There’s no reason Williamson can’t win the Most Improved Player award at the end of the season, and making another All-Star team should be a basic requirement. The Pelicans had a defensive rating of 112 (18th) and an offensive rating of 111.2 (19th) last year, and you can bet that Zion alone can drag both of those numbers above league average.
This may also be the year where a true successor to LeBron, at least in the way he plays and can dominate his opponents physically, begins to emerge. As a result of his body type, Zion has always appeared the most likely to be that guy, and as an American player (unlike Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic), fans will gravitate to him too.
Stephen Curry might still be the poster child of the league, but Zion truly is a one-of-one player, and the fact that he is healthy and joining a group that gave the Suns a scare in the postseason last year is huge. It is the perfect moment for the best version of Zion Williamson to mesh with the most complete version of the New Orleans Pelicans that we have seen in a long time.
The road to making deep playoff runs is filled with teams who skipped the queue and arrived at their destination early. It might only have been media day in New Orleans, and yet it felt like the true dawning of a new day.
One where Zion enters the discussion of top 10 players in the NBA and does so by playing the most complete basketball of his career. Western Conference, you have been warned.