In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).
It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.
As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.
San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).
At Summer League in Las Vegas, the Thomas and Mack was full but fans got just nine minutes of Zion Williamson, one half of basketball, before he was shut down following a knee-to-knee collision with another player. Zion was done for the summer as the Pelicans were overly cautious.
Wednesday night, Williamson finally makes his NBA debut, lacing up his Nikes against San Antonio at home in New Orleans.
What should we expect in Zion’s debut (with him likely on a minutes limit)? Here are three things to watch for.
1) Dunks. A lot of dunks.
Zion Williamson is an incredibly gifted athlete but right now his game is not filled with subtlety and craft — the manchild attacks the rim and finishes. With authority.
Look at Williamson’s shot chart from the preseason: He took just four shots outside the paint.
This is not a knock on Williamson’s game — the dunk is the most efficient shot on the court, f you can get it, take it. Williamson has skills — a crossover he uses in transition, an inside-out dribble, and more — that he uses to get to the rim, and he wants to finish every play the same way.
Which is exactly what the Pelicans need.
New Orleans has good shot creators — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram — and they have shooters such as J.J. Redick. What New Orleans could use is a threat that goes to the rim and forces defenses to collapse a little, opening up space (Derrick Favors has provided some of that). The Pelicans could use a player who can draw fouls and attacks the rim. That’s Zion. He should fit in beautifully on offense.
One scout I talked to (and he wasn’t the only person to make this comparison) said Williamson’s early career could resemble Blake Griffin’s in this sense: When he entered the league, Griffin was a high-flying dunking sensation who got his points at the rim, but eventually he developed an outside shot and a passing game that made him a much more rounded, All-NBA level player. Williamson has work to do on his other skills, but the man is going to dunk the ball in his debut.
2) The start of a playoff push in New Orleans.
Williamson’s injury was not the only one that hit the Pelicans: Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday, and Lonzo Ball have all missed significant chunks of time. Combine all of that with a newly formed roster, and the Pelicans got off to a dreadful start.
However, the rest of the bottom half of the West was equally dreadful. The result is that while New Orleans is just 17-27, Williamson’s return finds the Pelicans only 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the West. What’s more, the Pelicans have hit a groove going 11-5 in their last 16 with Ingram playing at an All-Star level to lead the offense and Favors providing a defensive anchor. Ball is starting to find a comfort zone in Alvin Gentry’s offense, which is allowing Holiday to work more at his natural two-guard spot.
One other thing in its favor: New Orleans has the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the Western Conference (only Atlanta is easier overall). Only one team New Orleans faces in its final 15 has a winning record — that’s a schedule set up for a closing kick.
With Zion back in the fold, the Pelicans are going to make a run at it.
3) How well do Zion and Brandon Ingram mesh?
This is the $168 million question for the Pelicans.
(It’s less expectation than a question, one that could be a five-year $202 million question if Ingram can play his way onto an All-NBA team this season, which may not be likely but certainly is possible.)
Ingram has played his way into that size max contract this summer and if the Pelicans don’t give it to him another team will (the most another team could offer is four-years, $125 million). David Griffin has talked about keeping Ingram, the team is expected to back up the Brinks truck for him, but that doesn’t change the question:
Can Ingram and Zion coexist on the court?
Before the season — and still in a lot of minds — there are doubts about how well the games of the slashing, attacking Ingram and Williamson would fit together. Could this be another version of the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid concerns in Philly, where two elite players want to operate in the same space and it clogs things up?
Ingram has developed a reliable jump shot this season — 39.9 percent from three on 6.2 attempts per game — and that has opened up his game. It also means he should fit better next to Williamson. However, the Pelicans likely want to see how all this works before they pay Ingram all that money this summer.
Williamson and Ingram may become the cornerstones of an outstanding New Orleans team in the future, but the questions about fit will linger until the players answer them. Those are not questions that are going to be answered in Williamson’s debut, but it’s something to watch.
But JJ Redick hit a quick 3, and after Leonard ran down the shot clock and missed a 3, New Orleans had 2.4 seconds to attempt a tying 3 that Redick missed off the back rim.
Montrezl Harrell scored 24 points for the Clippers, who trailed by 10 in the final seconds of the third quarter, but turned a steal into two free throws and then opened the fourth with an 8-0 run to tie it at 110.
After shooting 58.5% (38 of 65) in the first three quarters, the Pelicans made just 8 of 21 shots in the fourth as the game slipped away from them.
Lonzo Ball had 18 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for the Pelicans, who were seeking their 11th victory in 15 games despite the recent absence of guard Jrue Holiday, who has missed seven games with an elbow injury.
Lonzo has been playing better of late — seeming to find a comfort level with his revamped shooting form and within the Pelicans offense (while waiting for Zion Williamsonto return so he can start throwing lobs) — having a string of 20+ point scoring games and looking better running the offense.
However, the elder Ball brother gets asked as many questions about his younger brother LaMelo — a likely top-five, maybe top-three pick in the coming June draft — as he does about New Orleans. Lonzo has LaMelo’s back and thinks he should go No. 1, as he told Marc Berman of the New York Post.
“Wherever he lands, he’s gonna help out a lot. Anybody could use him,” Lonzo Ball told The Post…
“Whoever has the No. 1 pick, I feel like that’s who’s gonna get him,” Lonzo said. “He’s been in the spotlight since he was 15, plus I went through everything he’s gonna go through. So he always has me to fall back on.
“But what he did overseas, what he did in high school, I think it’s a fair choice [as the No. 1-overall pick], honestly. He’s been killing grown men in Australia, which is a very good league. So I expect the same thing here. It’s different for everybody Hopefully, it happens from the first game. That’s what I’d love to see.”
LaMelo may go No. 1 because there is no Zion-style standout at the top of this draft board, according to sources speaking to NBC Sports. There’s are a number of players with potential — Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman, Cole Anthony — but teams are generally down on the top of this draft. It ultimately will depend on how the lottery balls bounce and which team lands the top slot, because right now different teams have different players on top of the draft boards.
Scouts like the potential of LaMelo, a 6’7″ point guard with impressive handles, good size for the position, and is a gifted passer who averaged 17 points a game going against men in Australia (a league that helped produce a handful of other NBA players from Andrew Bogut through James Ennis). LaMelo makes some highlight-reel plays nearly every game.
However, LaMelo also shot just 25 percent from three and 37.5 percent overall in Australia, suffered an injury that raises questions about his durability (just like his brother Lonzo), hasn’t been a focused defender at any level, and there remain questions about his work ethic (although those reports have improved over the past couple of seasons). Plus, not every team wants to deal with the potential distractions of his father, LaVar Ball.
Lonzo might be Nostradamus and his brother goes No. 1, although the smart money is LaMelo goes a few picks later. Whatever happens, Lonzo will have his younger brother’s back.
Watch J.J. Redick silence the Sacramento crowd with layup game-winner
Watch the down screen Derrick Favors sets on Trevor Ariza to free Redick up — that was better than the blocking than Deshaun Watson got most of Saturday. Kings fans wanted a foul call on Favors, but you’re not getting that call at that point in the game. Sorry.
Richaun Holmes tried to help, but Redick is a veteran who knows how to use his body to create a little space and hit the difficult shot. That’s why the Pelicans got the win.