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The Zion-Era Pelicans May Be Closer to Competing Than You Think

Landing Williamson at no. 1 in Thursday’s NBA draft changed New Orleans’s future in a flash. But thanks to the trades the Pels have made since, the future may not be that far away.

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It’s not easy to get true value for a bona fide, blue-chip, max-level superstar. But David Griffin’s damn sure going to try.

There wasn’t much mystery about what the New Orleans Pelicans’ new executive vice president of basketball operations was going to do with the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft. Which way he’d go with their no. 4 choice, though—the one they landed as part of the blockbuster deal that sent Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers—was one of the biggest questions in the league entering Thursday night. A little over an hour before the start of ESPN’s broadcast, Griffin agreed to flip the fourth and 57th picks in Thursday’s draft to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for three 2019 selections—nos. 8, 17, and 35—and a heavily protected 2020 first-round pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers. He also got Atlanta to take on the $12.8 million owed to Solomon Hill in the final year of perhaps the most accursed contract of the Dell Demps era.

From the ashes of that frustrating age in New Orleans hoops rises a bold, bright hope. As transcendent a talent as Davis is, the Demps-led front office could never quite build the right roster around him to turn the Pelicans into legitimate title contenders. What Zion Williamson winds up being at the next level remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Griffin intends to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. Just look at what he’s already turned Davis into:

After making the no-brainer pick of Williamson first overall, the Pelicans set about surrounding their new franchise centerpiece with the kind of complementary talent who can help propel him toward stardom and contention. With the no. 8 pick came Texas freshman Jaxson Hayes, a rim-running shot-blocker heralded as perhaps the draft’s most accomplished pick-and-roll finisher and lob target. At no. 17, New Orleans snagged Virginia Tech guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the cousin of Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who shares some of the rising sophomore’s exciting attributes as a big, versatile playmaker with poise and panache in the pick-and-roll.

Williamson, Hayes, and Brandon Ingram give New Orleans an incredible combination of length and athleticism in the frontcourt. Alexander-Walker, Lonzo Ball, and Jrue Holiday can all handle the ball, pass, and defend multiple positions on the perimeter. E’Twaun Moore and Josh Hart are tough, professional guards who can knock down catch-and-shoot looks. The lower-wattage members of the “Jrue Krewe” who fought their way into the rotation amid the AD-pocalypse—guys like Kenrich Williams, Frank Jackson, Cheick Diallo, Christian Wood, and Jahlil Okafor—may or may not be in Griffin’s long-term plans, but they showed last season that they can bring a spark if given a chance.

Squint a little bit and you can see what Griffin wants to build around Williamson—a big, superathletic team with monster defensive upside; one that tries to wreak havoc, force turnovers, get out in transition, and unleash Zion as the force of nature he’s meant to be. Should Griffin find a way to add some shooting to space the floor for downhill rumblers like Williamson and Hayes and for penetrating ball handlers like Holiday and Ingram, you might not have to squint all that much.

Alexander-Walker should help there; he made 38.3 percent of his 303 3-point attempts over two seasons at Virginia Tech and could be a useful spot-up option working off of whichever Pelican is handling the ball in what promises to be a multifaceted offense. Then again, so could some veteran reinforcements.

The best way to put Williamson and the rest of New Orleans’s creators in position to succeed is to stock the roster with bankable shooters who can spread the floor for them to initiate and attack. After shedding Hill’s contract, New Orleans has an estimated $31 million in remaining salary cap space at its disposal this summer. Maybe Griffin won’t look to splurge in free agency; all those future picks he’s stockpiling make it clear that he’s taking the long view in constructing this Pelicans roster. But fortune can favor the bold, too.

If Zion’s destiny really is to be the NBA’s next great point center, why not take a swing at the piece that helped unlock Giannis Antetokounmpo in his rise to the top of the MVP ballot—stretch 5 Brook Lopez, who’s now an unrestricted free agent? Or, for that matter, their teammate Malcolm Brogdon, a big 50/40/90-shooting combo guard who’s 26 years old and can defend three spots, which seems very much in keeping with the roster New Orleans is assembling? Strike out on them, and you could wind up in the market for some other 3-and/or-D types who might get pushed down the free-agent pecking order. Maybe guys like Danny Green or erstwhile Pelican Nikola Mirotic won’t want to take the money to come to New Orleans to play with a bunch of kids; maybe they’d move the needle only so much if they did. But there’s something to sell now in New Orleans—hope for a brighter future, sure, but also a pretty compelling little squad developing in the shadow of all those highlight tapes and all that ascendant hype. Maybe, if the fit is right, it’d be in Griffin’s interests to try to sell it now, and see what he winds up with.

Winning the Williamson sweepstakes gave the Pelicans the gift of time; netting such a king’s ransom in exchange for Davis afforded them a world of opportunities. Griffin doesn’t need to rush things. He can let all this youth develop under the watchful eye of Holiday, see how New Orleans’s rebooted culture comes together, and figure out which of these newly assembled pieces merit consideration as cornerstones for what he hopes will be a championship-caliber team in the years ahead. Sometimes funny things happen on the way to figuring it all out, though. The Zion-era Pelicans are set up perfectly to be the team of the NBA’s future. But thanks to sheer luck and some shrewd negotiating, they might not be all that far from being a team to reckon with in the pretty near future.