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How Zion’s Arrival Will Shape the Second Half for the Pelicans and the NBA

The no. 1 pick’s long-awaited debut is coming. Here’s how Williamson’s return from injury could impact New Orleans, the playoff race, and the league’s bottom line.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Do you remember when Rudy Gobert challenged Zion Williamson and lost? It happened in the preseason, so no one would blame you if you don’t. But it’s real, and I can’t forget it.

Gobert is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, a dominant rim protector who causes opponents to shoot dramatically worse in the paint. But Zion had no fear: He gathered the ball, jumped, met Gobert midair, and scored. It’s just one play, but it’s symbolic of Williamson’s career to date. He made 79 percent of his shots at the rim as a Duke freshman and 77 percent on those same shots in preseason, with many of them being opportunities he created off the dribble. The bucket against Gobert is the most memorable one from his preseason—in which he averaged 30.8 points on 71 percent shooting per 36 minutes—because it shows how Zion’s game could translate to meaningful NBA action.

Real games are finally coming soon for Zion. On Wednesday, Pelicans basketball operations head honcho David Griffin said the no. 1 pick will debut on January 22, at home against the Spurs. The Pelicans have been cautious and patient with their prized rookie, pushing back their original timeline of a return six to eight weeks after the surgery in late October. Griffin said recently the surgery itself wasn’t serious, but that the team has taken a “holistic approach” to changing the mechanics of Zion’s gait, which the team believes caused the original problem. “I’ve heard the narrative that he shouldn’t play at all, but that would be absurd from where he is,” Griffin added. “He’s worked this hard because he intends to play basketball and he wants to lead his guys. He’s going to be an alpha as a vocal presence; you can’t be that when you’re not playing basketball.”

Zion could lead a postseason team. Despite their 15-26 record, the playoffs are within reach for the Pelicans, who trail the Grizzlies for eighth place in the West by only four games. The Pelicans have won eight of their past 12 games, largely fueled by the return of center Derrick Favors, who has stabilized their defense, and the continued emergence of Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. If it weren’t for the recent hot streak, the smoke around Jrue Holiday earlier this season could’ve turned to fire, and the Pelicans could be looking for a trade instead of awaiting his return from an elbow injury. If Zion becomes the player he’s shown he can be, the Pelicans could make a serious run. All but one of their final 15 games will be against a team with a losing record, eight of which are teams with a bottom-10 net rating.

Is Zion already great enough to jolt New Orleans into the postseason? A lot would need to break right, but everything with Zion should fall into place. The Pelicans are a high-powered transition team that’s fun to watch, but they’ve sputtered in the half court, ranking 20th in half-court scoring efficiency, according to Synergy Sports. If Zion’s college and preseason production is to be believed, then the Pelicans are about to receive a player who scores inside with Giannis-like proficiency and draws fouls at a near league-high rate. Williamson logged 32 free throws and 49 shots in the preseason—a free throw rate that’d rank second of all starters this season, behind only Miami’s Jimmy Butler. The Pelicans rank 21st in points in the paint and 26th in free throw rate; Zion will give those categories a big boost.

“We want to get out and have open spaces on the floor to utilize the talent that we have,” coach Alvin Gentry told me last Saturday. That’s exactly how New Orleans used Zion during exhibition games.

Zion in the half court was like a dog chasing a laser. He was in constant motion, cutting and using handoffs and screens to slingshot toward the rim. Gentry told me that in past eras of basketball, teams would’ve used Williamson like a traditional post player. But today, there needs to be more creativity in the actions they run to maintain perimeter spacing. Notice in the clip above how center Jahlil Okafor sets an on-ball screen for Ball, then stops his roll toward the rim and instead screens for Zion, who’s curling toward the rim.

It’s a great set, but it only works because Zion has the athleticism and coordination to extend his arm for the ridiculous touch finish. You might not know it from the highlights, but Williamson is more than a gravity-defying dunker; he can use his big body to battle behemoths like Gobert and he has a soft touch with either hand to lay the ball off the glass. Of course, the dunks are spectacular.

Sometimes the Pelicans had Zion rush all the way from the half-court line, like in the play above, to create a runway toward the rim. As he gains more respect from opponents, expect defenses to pack the lane like they do to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo, which could only open up more passing lanes for Zion to throw strikes to teammates spotting up for corner 3s.

Yeah, he can pass, too. Williamson will make life easier on his teammates—Brandon Ingram could be the greatest beneficiary. Ingram is already playing All-Star-worthy basketball, averaging 25.1 points and 4.2 assists. I would currently vote for Ingram as an All-Star reserve, and I’m not his only fan. Gentry praised how Ingram has learned to balance his scoring and playmaking in recent weeks, largely by doing so within the flow of the offense. “The term everyone uses is ‘downhill,’” Gentry said. “And he can do it all going downhill.”

The Pelicans score 66 percent of the time Ingram drives to the rim—an elite mark that ranks near Bradley Beal and Luka Doncic, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Ingram can also score and pass, making Zion a potential red zone receiver. In the clip above, focus on how hard rookie center Jaxson Hayes rolls to the rim. In one play, he ends up with a dunk. In the other, he causes the defense to rotate, freeing Josh Hart for an open 3. If Hayes gives defenses headaches as a lob target, Zion will give them migraines.

Zion’s return helps Ingram in multiple ways. For one, Ingram will be able to defend more wings, and he had better success containing those players his last two seasons with the Lakers than he’s had against larger players this season with the Pelicans. They’ll need everyone to be better on defense; they rank 25th in defensive rating this season. It could also lead to more opportunities for Ingram to feast against backups. Gentry currently subs out Ingram late in the first quarter, but could instead take out Ingram midway through the first and third quarters, and bring him back late to lead the second-unit offense.

“It’s gonna be good to have Zion back. He adds another dynamic player to the floor and will attract attention from opposing teams so they can’t focus as much on everyone else,” Ingram told me. “We’re gonna have a lot of mismatches on the basketball floor. With a lot of players that have playmaking ability, we’re gonna have a lot of open shots.” Ingram could be one of the players receiving those open shots. Ingram is posting big volume numbers, but he’s doing it efficiently; only four players this season are averaging more than 20 points with a better effective field goal percentage, according to Basketball-Reference. He’s shooting better than 40 percent from 3 and better than 85 percent from the line after working with Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson. Ingram told me he worked with Vinson for a month during the offseason before coming to training camp, tweaking his mechanics to have a quicker, smoother form with better timing on his release, all of which improved his confidence.

Ingram’s form has undergone a dramatic change since his time at Duke, and I’m buying the results. It wouldn’t be the first time Vinson helped a player—he’s known for assisting Tyreke Evans in developing a better shot. Or the last—Lonzo is posting career-best 3-point numbers off the catch and off the dribble. “Coach Fred took me under his wing once I got here,” Ball told me last November in Brooklyn. “I’ve been shooting one way for a long time, so it’s been hard to change. But catch-and-shoot is feeling pretty normal to me. Off the bounce and stepbacks is the next step.”

Lonzo’s shot off the dribble has looked better since November. Vinson still works with Ball before games, and before Saturday’s game in Boston, Vinson also spent extensive time working with Zion. I didn’t notice any mechanical changes to Zion’s form, but he was going through the same types of drills that Ball did, taking set shots and then moving on to jumpers. “You can’t put a value on Fred’s coaching,” Gentry told me. “Fred is great at it and he’s got them convinced if you put in the work, you can get better.”

Zion doesn’t need a jumper to be a success, just like Giannis doesn’t need one to be an MVP or Ben Simmons doesn’t need one to be an All-Star. But there are always ways to get better, and Zion with a jumper would give the Pelicans even more options for how they build the team. If Zion becomes a reliable shooter, they could keep a nonshooting center like Favors or Hayes next to him without sacrificing spacing. And playing Zion at the 5 would put the team on stilts rather than serve as a crutch. In an ideal world, the Pelicans should have to play him at the 5 only in times of need, like the Warriors did by turning to Draymond Green at center to form their “Death Lineup.” Could the Pelicans someday form their own game-breaking lineup with Zion?

The entire organization is excited to get Zion back and find out. They’re not the only ones. Zion is already drawing huge crowds on the road; in Boston, a gathering of people two or three rows deep formed around the Pelicans bench and tunnel area at TD Garden to watch his pregame warm-up. And this is before he’s logged a single regular-season minute.

Zion was a prospect worth tanking for, and now he’s a player worthy of the spotlight. The NBA also made a huge investment in Zion and the Pelicans by scheduling them for 20 national TV games on ESPN, ABC, or TNT—including on opening night against the Raptors, for Toronto’s ring ceremony. The Pelicans have nine more national TV games over the remainder of the season, starting this Saturday against the Clippers and on Monday against the Grizzlies. During the Anthony Davis era, the most the Pels played on national TV in one season was 13 times, in both 2015-16 and 2018-19. Zion’s arrival could not only turn around the Pelicans’ season, but also might be able to buoy the NBA’s ratings dip.

Even while injured, Zion was a draw. Since October, Google Trend data shows that Zion has more total web searches and YouTube searches in the United States than the rest of the Pelicans starting lineup combined (Ball, Ingram, Favors, and Holiday). More impressively, he has slightly more web searches than Giannis and James Harden, the past two MVPs, and slightly more YouTube searches than Giannis and Luka Doncic, who just won Rookie of the Year and is in the middle of the most impressive second season since LeBron James. During Zion’s dominant preseason, he logged about as many searches as many of the game’s best players do during the regular season.

The next face of the NBA could be Giannis or Luka. Or maybe Zion will leap them both and take the crown from LeBron James. It’s not like Zion is going to MacGyver the NBA’s dipping ratings, but he can certainly help. Zion has the kind of game that appeals to every type of fan. The fan who wants dunks will get his fix from following social media, and the fan who wants breakdowns can find analysis on how Zion is a window into the way the game is changing. If Zion produces, he’ll be a hit across all levels of basketball fandom. The Pelicans hope he can be their franchise savior. The NBA hopes he can be something even more. It’s a lot of pressure for a 19-year-old to carry, but Zion has already shown he can stand up to towering opponents.

This story was updated at 3:25 p.m. ET on January 15 with more information after publication.