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The Pelicans Are Giving Zion Williamson the Future Anthony Davis Never Had

New Orleans rushed to win ASAP with AD. By trading Davis to the Lakers, it opened up a world of possibilities for its new transcendent young big man.

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Fresh off winning the lottery, the New Orleans Pelicans got greedy and committed a robbery. By trading Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, the no. 4 pick in the 2019 draft, and two additional future first-round picks, the Pelicans have bucked conventional wisdom that the team that gets the best player wins the deal.

Trade heists aren’t supposed to be simple, but the Lakers were desperate. New Pelicans executive VP David Griffin knew the Lakers couldn’t afford to burn another season with LeBron James—and perhaps the bridge between the Lakers and Rich Paul, the agent for both Davis and James—by waiting for Davis to hit free agency in the summer of 2020. The Lakers had to make this trade, and despite the heavy price, got one of the best young players in the league to pair with James.

But New Orleans didn’t have to make any hard choices between major draft capital and starters on rookie-scale contracts. That’s incredibly rare. Every situation is unique, but it was just a year ago when the second- or third-best piece in the deal for Kawhi Leonard was Jakob Poeltl. It’s not reasonable to expect all or even most of the pieces in a trade like this to pan out, but they don’t have to. There are so many high-ceiling assets going to New Orleans that even a few working out would make for a haul. With this trade, Griffin is giving Zion Williamson the opposite setup the previous Pelicans regime gave to Davis: a long runway full of young teammates and increased flexibility.

Dell Demps, the Pelicans’ previous GM, dealt draft picks and overpaid anyone who would take the team’s money (Omer Asik, Solomon Hill, Alexis Ajinca, etc.) in order to accelerate the timeline around Davis. Demps’s job was often on the line, so most of the moves were made with an eye toward winning ASAP. Griffin has options; he can deal from his surplus of draft picks to surround Williamson with some veterans—ESPN reported the Pels are shopping the no. 4 pick—or he can slow-play it to find out exactly what his new franchise cornerstone needs to bring out the best in his game. That patience could be important, because Zion will be asked to do different things in the pros than he was in college. Williamson was secretly a star in a secondary role at Duke and will likely become something vastly different in New Orleans.

Fit shouldn’t be the biggest concern at this nascent stage of their rebuild, but the Pelicans’ new trio of Ingram, Ball, and Hart should thrive in Alvin Gentry’s go-go system while taking some pressure off Zion to be “the man” right away. The biggest prize in this deal is Ingram, who is somehow still 21 years old and would be, at worst, the third pick of this year’s draft. In his last 25 games before his 2018-19 season ended because of a blood clot in his shoulder, Ingram averaged 20.7 points per game, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists on 52.3 percent field goal shooting and 36.6 percent from 3, despite not fully grasping what constitutes a good shot or how easily he can score at the rim. Even if Ingram plateaus from here—which seems unlikely given his age and burgeoning ability as a playmaker—it’s hard to overstate just how much of an upgrade he is on the wing over the never-ending cascade of below-replacement-level small forwards that preceded him in New Orleans. If the light bulb stays on for longer stretches, Ingram is a lot closer to stardom than his reputation would lead you to believe after being dragged through the mud as an “unworthy” trade headliner last season.

The acquisition for New Orleans with the widest variance of outcomes is Ball, who might be nearing a career crossroads quicker than he should be. Point guards who can’t draw fouls (career 1.2 free throws attempted per game, 43.7 percent free throw shooting) and can’t space the floor (career 31.5 percent 3-point shooter) make things significantly more difficult for everyone else against set defenses in the half court, no matter how transcendent they are in transition. Ball, also 21, does a few things at an elite level, and we do live in a world where Ricky Rubio evolved into a real scoring threat in the postseason, so it’s not totally implausible that Ball becomes an above-average 3-point shooter or finisher at the rim. Asking for both at this point is probably too much. Given the speed New Orleans will play at (top-10 in pace the past four seasons under Gentry), and presence of both a lob partner with unparalleled explosiveness in Zion and a combo guard who will shore up and account for his weaknesses in Jrue Holiday, it’s hard to shake the feeling that if it doesn’t happen here and now for Ball, maybe it never will.

If there’s reason to believe Lonzo will figure it out, it’s the recent track record of players who have left the Lakers. D’Angelo Russell made an All-Star team. Brook Lopez was an integral part of the best regular-season team in the NBA. New Orleans got the best out of Julius Randle’s bowling-ball offense. There’s a chance we see some positive regression for Ball, but maybe even more so for Hart. He may be treated like a throw-in now, but Hart is a solid role player with the mental makeup and skills to outlast a lot of his peers—the Jared Dudley for the next generation. With his ability to rebound and cover bigger defenders in the post, Hart, 24, should endear himself to Gentry. The Pelicans haven’t shied away from playing smaller guys like E’Twaun Moore heavy minutes at the 3, so as long as Hart spaces the floor more like he did his rookie season (39.6 percent from deep) than his most recent campaign (33.6), he should find a place in the offense.

If you want to nitpick the New Orleans’s trade haul, the lack of shooting is the place to start. The thought of putting four 3-point shooters around Zion—i.e., the same thing the Lakers should have done with LeBron—is awfully enticing. Ball and Ingram will (and should) soak up a lot of minutes, but both players (and potentially Randle, who holds a player option for next season) are limited 3-point shooters. With the Pelicans likely to play a bigger center next to Zion for at least some of the time, spacing could be a major issue.

The new-look Pelicans (the Peli-kers? We’ll work on it) will do their best to push the pace and minimize some of those concerns, perhaps taking the Oklahoma City defensive approach of jumping passing lanes and living in transition. At the heart of that will be Holiday—his ethering of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the 2017-18 first round was the stuff of legends. An All-Defense first team member in 2017-18 and a second team member last season, Holiday now gets to play alongside a big guard in Ball who can more than handle his own and a roaming backline force in Zion who can switch out onto ball handlers and gobble them up. With this much ball pressure, length, and mobility, New Orleans can be hell on Earth for opposing guards who spent a little too much time at Tipitina’s the night before.

If New Orleans wants to contend for a playoff spot right away, it’ll need some adults filling out the rest of the rotation. A center who rebounds defensively and stretches the floor like Dewayne Dedmon would make a lot of sense on a short-term deal. Ditto for a proven 3-and-D wing like Danny Green. New Orleans, of course, could set its sights even higher. Now armed with multiple first-round picks and cap space, the Pelicans could be a player this summer or near the trade deadline should they come out hot. Or they could just stockpile future assets, and patiently wait their turn.

Either way, New Orleans has successfully completed the high-wire act of trading an unhappy superstar to his preferred destination and becoming more interesting because of it. Maybe it’s fitting—there’s no place like New Orleans to pretend the past seven years of your life never happened, and there’s no prospect like Zion to make you forget everyone else who came before him. With this trade, a young team just got younger. A fast team just got faster. And after spending every season watching Davis play with little help until the wheels fell off? You can throw in better, too.