Zion Williamson Needs Help & The New Orleans Pelicans Must Deliver
An international NBA fan breaks down the Pelicans’ needs
Ever since I became an avid NBA fan, I’ve had a tradition of rooting for a new team with young players who I’m interested in. They become my “League Pass” team during the regular season (I live in the Philippines, and my main squad is the Golden State Warriors, who have struggled to make the playoffs recently…). Watching a variety of organizations is a fun way to learn about what else is going on in the Association while tracking the best rising talents. This year, there was one specific roster I fixated on — and that was the Pels.
It’s obvious that a lot of people were excited about the Pelicans at the start of the 2021–21 season—that’s because they were supposed to deliver the full Zion Williamson experience, in addition to having the Most Improved Player of the Year in Brandon Ingram and the ever-intriguing Lonzo Ball running the floor by his side. The glimpses of what this team, and particularly Zion, could achieve, was tantalizing enough to give the unproven New Orleans franchise a bunch of marquee spots on prime time television during the “COVID szn.”
And indeed, Zion, if nothing else, was as good as advertised.
In only his sophomore appearance, Williamson proved that he belongs among the upper echelon of this league. He made tangible progress towards becoming one of the best players in the NBA, averaging 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game, while shooting at 61.1% from the field — en route to his first All-Star appearance.
Unfortunately, Zion’s breakout performance did not translate into his team’s success, as the Pels failed to qualify for even the Play-In tournament as their minimum entry point. It’s even more shameful when you consider that fellow young studs Ball (who averaged career-high numbers) and Ingram (a consistent 2nd option who scored at will) had noticeable performances wasted, too.
But as they say, basketball is a team sport. And even with the vast improvements that the Pelicans’ blossoming core has exhibited, the pieces around them are still missing — big time.
Let’s specify that even more by looking at Zion, and him only. From what his gameplay this season suggested, there is no doubt that he is the face (and muscles) of this Pelicans organization. And that merits one important obligation: which is for the front office to build around him.
So allow me to present the holes that need to be plugged in order to amplify Zion’s dominance, which might generate better results for this floundering team by the Bayou.
The assist numbers of the Pelicans weren’t that bad; they were even among the top 10 in the entire NBA. They moved the ball around at almost the same rate as their assists. Then why ask for more playmaking?
One of the misconceptions of basketball fans is that passing equates to playmaking, wherein fact, it’s completely different. Playmaking entails having knowledge of reading opposing defenses and an ability to create easier shots for teammates (and for yourself).
In relation to Zion, having another playmaker by his side could unlock an untapped potential that was not utilized much this past season.
As we all enjoy the 2021 Finals, a simple yet effective “set play” has been prevalent among all the successful teams — which is the pick-and-roll. There is no better example to emulate how devastating this play can get than the Phoenix Suns.
Deandre Ayton’s performance this postseason has been a revelation, and one reason why is due to the superior playmaking of Chris Paul. Paul’s ability to use the screen to create his own shot, either a middy or the 3-ball, also enables him to show off his pinpoint passing and locate the wide-open, sweeping teammate. His beneficiary, Ayton, has reaped the goods with an improved roll to the basket and is amongst the best in that category this playoffs.
Let’s get Zion some of that action.
In the 2019–20 season, Ayton’s numbers on the pick-and-roll weren’t as elite as this year’s. Take a look:
Pick & Roll — Roll Man Stats (Per NBA.com stats)
Deandre Ayton (2019–2020)
FREQ: 18.3% PPP: 1.16 EFG%: 60.5
These numbers above emphasize the importance of having playmaking. As Zion’s main skill is to feast anytime he wants in the paint, a pick-and-roll partner would further amplify this strength of his.
Compare that to Zion’s 2020–21 metrics:
FREQ: 5.2% PPP: 1.15 EFG%: 57.1
The answer to this problem might be within the roster by giving Zion more license to become a playmaking big — which may really do wonders for the Pelicans. However, the outturn of having a playmaking guard is indisputably proven and tested.
Let’s accept the fact that putting a premium on shooting has been the name of the game for top tier teams in this era of NBA basketball. For the Pelicans, it should be the utmost priority to complement one of the most immovable forces in the league with a sureshot splasher.
This year has been a living testament of what’s in store for Zion, as he became the league’s top scorer inside the shaded area. That is with the caveat of him sharing the paint with Steven Adams — and a glaring lack of outside shooting.
New Orleans had an atrocious 34.8 3-point shooting clip for the season, which ranked the 4th-worst in the league. Also, note that Bradon Ingram (38.1%) and Lonzo Ball (37.8%) were the only teammates who shot above the league’s average 3-point percentage this year —with a minimum of 50 attempts.
To think that the Pelicans still had an 11th-ranked offense even with this major limitation makes it more impressive that Zion had such a showcasing offensive output. And even with the call for Zion to develop a decent midrange game to solve some of the team’s shooting woes, it would still do other teams a favor by taking the big stud out of the paint — where he is nothing short of unstoppable.
Imagine what Zion could do when double/triple teams become less frequent when the threat of an outside shot by a reliable teammate is added. Yikes. That’s a situation every single Pelican member would want to see.
There is no disputing how good of an offensive weapon Zion is, but his defensive tendencies still have a long way to go at the pro level. And so does the whole team, where a lack of buy-in and performance from the defensive end was evident.
The main reason why the Pelicans decided to name Stan Van Gundy as their head coach was to instill a defensive mentality and intensity. But for all we know, whatever worked in 2009 doesn’t work in 2021 — and one of them was SVG’s approach to defensive ball.
A staple of SVG coached teams has always been to establish a great interior defense, rather than limiting the opponent’s outside scoring. They tried to implement that by starting two traditional bigs, an idea that could’ve been feasible if Zion wasn’t paired with Steven Adams.
Since his Thunder days, Adams has never been known as a rim protector — which doesn’t fit with the current defensive deficiencies of Zion. An end product, the Pelicans let the opposition shoot 64.2% 5 feet within the basket — again dropping them down to 4th-worst in the league.
With their willingness to dare teams to shoot from the outside, it happened frequently, and they suffered. The Pelicans gave up the 2nd-most 3's this season, and as mentioned earlier, they simultaneously allowed their opponents to feast inside the paint as well, with little resistance. These all contributed to a 23rd-out-of-30 defensive rating for the season — worse than the previous season.
Honestly, the current construct of the Pelicans’ roster might only need a guiding voice that can hammer the right defensive philosophy for the personnel available — and the player(s) that need to be imported. The length and youthfulness is there, and they might just have the recipe to become a good enough defensive team with a summer’s worth of tinkering. As per Zion, I truly believe that his explosiveness and brute strength can also translate into a great help defender in the NBA — just like his days at Duke.
This upcoming season feels like a make-or-break year for the New Orleans Pelicans. It should be a prerogative to go all in to alleviate as many deficiencies they have as efficiently as they can, especially when they have a transcendental superstar in the making. Maybe trading for Jonas Valančiūnas after his monster year in Memphis could help with that missing interior presence (bye, bye, Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe). Or maybe they can use their new №17 pick to flip more talent in their direction.
Whatever they do, another 12 months of not seeing Zion Williamson in the NBA Playoffs could compel him to pack him up and ditch town, which would be the second biggest crime scene the city of New Orleans would have to witness (see: Anthony Davis). The silver lining is they still have another chance to prove to Mr. Williamson that they can build towards a more competitive output— with him leading the charge.