Time to Take Flight

Pelicans’ playoff hopes hinge on strong second half of season.

Illustration by Tony Healey

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.

 

For months, the New Orleans Pelicans had to wait with bated breath. The debutant party began on the night of the NBA Draft Lottery, when the Pels got lucky, receiving the No. 1 overall pick. There was no doubt they’d pick Duke phenom Zion Williamson, the most anticipated player to enter the league since LeBron James, when head coach Alvin Gentry exclaimed “F*%k, yeah!” as the Pelicans’ ping-pong ball was the first to be displayed.

Unfortunately, the 6-foot, 6-inch, 284-pound power forward missed the first 44 games of the season after undergoing surgery in October to repair a torn meniscus. With their star player sidelined, the Pelicans struggled through the first half of the season. They’ve floated around 11th place in the Western Conference standings, three spots out of the coveted top eight who qualify for the postseason.

Williamson finally made his debut on Jan. 21. Since then, he’s begun to fulfill the excitement and expectations of the reputation he’s built.

By early February, he was averaging 19.6 points and 8 rebounds, and converting 55 percent of his shots. He’s also had some highlight reel exploits, namely a jaw-dropping alley-oop against the Houston Rockets. Guard Lonzo Ball launched the ball three-quarters of the length of the court, where Williamson caught it in stride and slammed it home in a demonstrative display of what the team is capable of achieving. The pass, reception, and score was the basketball equivalent of a long TD pass from Saints quarterback Drew Brees to receiver Michael Thomas. The play was magic. It planted the seeds of belief and has Pelicans fans asking, “What if?’ as in, “What if this team continues to jell and improve? What’s in store?”

Now whole, the team will be put to the test over the final two months of the regular season.

There is reason to be excited. While Williamson demands attention, he’s not a one-man team. Brandon Ingram has had a superb start to the season. As of the beginning of February, the All-Star is averaging more than 25 points and 6 rebounds per game. Williamson is adding 19.6 points and 8 rebounds. Jrue Holiday, who was crowned the team’s leader before the season, is averaging 19.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists and almost 2 steals per game. Sharp-shooter J.J. Redick has 15.2 points per game.

If there is any obvious area for improvement, it is at center; Derrick Favors is averaging 9.5 points per game, Jahlil Okafor is at 8.3 and Jaxson Hayes has 8.1. While the team doesn’t want to clog up the middle of the floor, the big men need to do more.

It would also be nice to see a bit of an increase in production from the shooting guards. Josh Hart is scoring 10.6 points per game, and E’Twaun Moore is averaging 9.9. Playing time may be a factor in influencing those figures, but producing is the name of the game.

With the All-Star Game in the rearview mirror and the NBA Finals ahead, this team is poised to make a qualifying run for the playoffs. With Williamson’s extended injury some might be willing to give the team a pass this season, but the Pelicans would really make a statement by climbing into the top eight in the conference and making a post-season appearance.

I don’t think anyone is willing to say this team is ready to compete for the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy, but finishing strong and qualifying for the post-season would be a major step in announcing to the world that the Pelicans are coming. That’s something they couldn’t regularly accomplish with former stars Chris Paul or Anthony Davis. If they do it now, with their superstar having missed the first few months of the season, they’d really make a statement.

 

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