For all the talk lately of the NBA’s dwindling television ratings, there is one potential saving grace on the way Wednesday: Zion Williamson, the most-hyped No. 1 pick since LeBron James a little more than a decade and a half ago, is slated to make his regular-season debut as a pro. Finally, after a half-season of waiting and wondering what he’ll look like when the games actually count, we’ll see the former Duke star take the court with his New Orleans teammates.
But perhaps the most fascinating question tied to his return is one that could take a bit longer to ascertain: Will the rookie’s presence be enough to lift the Pelicans — losers of 13 in a row at one point this season, and still in just 12th place in the West — into the conference’s final playoff spot?
Based on what we saw from Williamson and the Pelicans in the preseason, reaching the postseason wouldn’t be all that far-fetched. Zion and the Pels looked like a match made in heaven in those October exhibition games, going 5-0 while playing an uptempo style that made use of his dynamic skill in transition and put limited pressure on his ability to create offense in half-court scenarios. (Even without Zion so far this season, the Pelicans play at the league’s sixth-fastest pace.)
So we should undoubtedly expect to see that approach, which helped Williamson achieve historic preseason averages: 23 points and 6 rebounds in just 27 minutes per night on 71 percent shooting. But if there’s one thing that could look different, it’s that Brandon Ingram, averaging nearly 26 points per game, has taken over as the team’s No. 1 option.
Assuming that remains the case, it will be interesting to see how well — and how often — the 22-year-old runs the pick-and-roll with Williamson.1 Ingram goes 1-on-1 frequently and has been efficient in doing so, but will allowing him to do his own thing minimize Zion’s downhill role within the offense? If Ingram continues to call his own number with Williamson on the court, there should still be plenty of half-court opportunities to get Zion touches — especially by putting him in the corner, and then having a teammate set a pindown screen for him, giving him a running start toward the basket around the elbow.
When completely healthy — something this club hasn’t been all season — the Pelicans have their fair share of weapons. Aside from Ingram showing considerable growth, Lonzo Ball has been far more comfortable as a perimeter shooter and is hitting triples at a league-average rate with his new shooting form. J.J. Redick is still one of the most dangerous shooters in the sport, and New Orleans can leverage that skill to pair him and Zion together in certain sets to force defenses into impossible Catch-22s. (Redick and rookie Jaxson Hayes have seemingly already mastered this play, resulting in several Hayes dunks.) Jrue Holiday is one of the most solid, balanced floor generals in the game, and Derrick Favors is consistently one of the more underrated bigs, especially on defense, where the Pelicans have struggled mightily thus far.
But while it’s clear how the Pelicans can use Williamson, that doesn’t quite answer the question of whether he’ll put them over the top for the last spot playoff out West.
Interestingly enough, FiveThirtyEight’s NBA projection model is extremely bullish on the Pelicans; on Tuesday morning, it gave them a 61 percent probability of earning the last playoff spot — even without Williamson back yet, and even though the club is 3.5 games behind the red-hot Memphis Grizzlies for eighth place in the standings.
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So why all the statistical faith in New Orleans? There are a handful of reasons, but two stand out. First, the model believes the Pelicans’ roster at completely full strength has the talent of a 50-win club. And second, the other six teams in the fight for that last playoff seed all have far tougher remaining schedules.
In fact, three of those clubs — Phoenix, Memphis and Minnesota — rank among the top five in remaining strength of schedule; the other three — Sacramento, Portland and San Antonio, rank in the top 15. In a stark contrast, the Pelicans have the second-easiest remaining schedule. Another thing that should make New Orleans feel confident: 14 of its remaining games are against those six teams also fighting for the last spot. And the Pelicans have amassed a 6-1 mark against those clubs to this point.
However it ends up playing out, there’s no denying this season — from Zion’s surgery and the 13-game skid, to Ingram’s star turn and now getting Zion back in time for a late run at a playoff spot2 — has been one of extreme highs and lows. And seeing where the roller coaster ends for Williamson and the Pelicans figures to make for great entertainment.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.