Glory of Zion
Pelicans’ Zion Williamson’s star is rising, but playoff run remains his focus
Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football. Price also authors the Friday Sports Column at BizNewOrleans.com.
That’s what former New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry blurted out when the team won the No. 1 pick in the NBA’s 2019 draft lottery, ensuring they’d be able to select Zion Williamson, a player who many experts described as a once-in-a-generation type athlete.
Williamson — who combines smarts and size with lightning quickness and leaping ability — brought instant fanfare and expectations to New Orleans. His weight, however — he was listed as the second-heaviest player in the league to start the season —combined with a preseason injury, severely impacted his rookie year and had experts questioning if the first overall pick was ready for the big time.
Now healthy, however, his potential is being revealed.
At 6 feet, 7 inches, and 284 pounds, Williamson has been physically compared to NBA legends LeBron James, Charles Barkley and Larry Johnson, but he also has an explosive first step, the ability to change direction, and ball-handling and passing skills like Magic Johnson. Since the end of January, he’s led one of the NBA’s hottest offenses. Last month, he was a starter in his first All-Star Game appearance, and this month Nike’s Jordan brand will release his first signature shoe.
Although their record through the first half of the season is similar to last year’s result, New Orleans saw a notable improvement in the second quarter of this season. At the All-Star break, the Pelicans stood at 15-21, 11th in Western Conference, but the team has seen a massive offensive upgrade since the end of January, much of which has pivoted on Williamson’s play and the team’s ability to use him in multiple positions on the floor, especially running the offense from the top of the key.
Through the first half of the season, Williamson has already played in 34 games and improved every metric minus his 3-point percentage. His play is setting or matching decades-old NBA records and he is the first player since the shot-clock era began in 1954-55 to average 23 or more points per game on 60% shooting in their first 50 career games. He is on pace to join Kevin McHale as the only players in NBA history to average more than 25 points per game on 60% shooting over a season.
The Pelicans’ decision to let Williamson move from his position in the post to handling the ball like a guard has created mismatches for opposing defenses, allowing New Orleans to emerge as one of the best offenses in the NBA. With his speed, a single defender can’t stop him one-on-one when he drives inside. That provides easy buckets. If other defenders abandon their man to help provide double- and triple-team coverage to try to stop Williamson, that creates passing lanes to open, unguarded teammates.
In an interview with The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, Pelicans president David Griffin praised Williamson’s range of skills. “Zion is so physically overwhelming in the paint that people just think he’s a freak-of-nature power forward, and that’s all he is. But he played point guard basically his entire life before he got to Duke. His stepfather raised him with the ball in his hand to make decisions like a point guard. He measures himself by his ability to make people better.”
Williamson earned his first All-Star Game appearance last month and was named a starter in place of Joel Embiid, who had to sit out due to COVID-19 safety protocols. In 14 minutes, he had 10 points on 5 of 9 shooting and one rebound. This month, he will reach a cultural milestone in his career when his signature shoe, the Jordan Z Code, hits retail stores.
With all of the hullabaloo and potential distractions, look for Head Coach Stan Van Gundy and the core group of Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball to focus the team on shoring and improving its defensive play in order to get to the postseason for the first time since the 2017-2018 season.
“It’s a privilege to be named an All-Star,” Williamson said in the event’s postgame press conference. “In the second half of the season you gotta continue to show why you feel like you deserve to be an All-Star. My mindset is on helping my team win, and that’s where all my focus is going to be.”