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Zion Williamson Isn’t Just Back—He’s in a Playoff Hunt

NBA fans finally get to open their most anticipated present of the 2019-20 season. But Zion Williamson’s debut isn’t some midseason sideshow, it’s a potential inflection point in the Western Conference’s postseason race.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It took three months, 44 missed games, surgical repair to the meniscus in his right knee, and a stem-to-stern tune-up of the kinetic chain that included tweaks to “small matters in how he walks and runs,” but the end of our long National Basketball Association nightmare is almost over. Zion Williamson is poised to make his regular-season debut Wednesday night, at home in New Orleans against the San Antonio Spurs. The no. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft—one of the most heavily hyped prospects of our time, one of the most dominant and remarkable freshman players in NCAA history, and an unprecedented physical specimen whose impossible body got grounded on the eve of what should’ve been his premiere back in October—will play basketball tonight.

In case you’d forgotten what that looks like, allow me to improve your day by way of a brief reminder:

Now, we probably shouldn’t expect to see quite so much sauce from Williamson immediately. It’s been 101 days since Zion’s last taste of live action, after all, which could bring a layer of rust we didn’t see when he was rampaging through the preseason to a historic degree. It might take the rookie some time to find his sea legs, and he might not get all that much time to start with; while New Orleans reportedly plans to start him in his debut, the team will also be “monitoring his minutes,” with executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin telling reporters that the no. 1 pick won’t have a “hard minutes restriction,” but will play in short “bursts.”

Exactly how long those stints will last, and how much floor time they’ll add up to, remains to be seen. Either way, though, it seems worth noting that, stylistically, it’s hard to envision any other way for Zion to play than what we’ve previously seen. “Bursts”—whether they’re sudden explosions or the application of incredible force that causes things to violently break apart—are kind of Zion’s thing. “He’s doing shit from a physics perspective that no one else does,” Griffin recently told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes.

What matters most about Wednesday night is that it be followed by an uneventful Thursday morning; whether Williamson can remain healthy and stay on the court stands as one of the NBA’s most important questions for the rest of the season, for Pelicans fans, for basketball lovers, and for league executives and partners alike. Past that, though, what matters is that his return might actually, practically, tangibly matter for New Orleans—which didn’t seem like it’d be the case just a few short weeks ago.

One month into the season, the Pelicans were 6-9, scoring effectively thanks to a hot start from newly imported swingman Brandon Ingram, but struggling to string together stops on defense. Two months in, New Orleans was a ghastly 7-23, shaking off a disastrous 13-game losing streak that had us wondering whether head coach Alvin Gentry, star guard Jrue Holiday, and podcaster/sharpshooter JJ Redick were on their way out of town. It also made us wonder whether maybe Zion might be best served following in the footsteps of Blake Griffin, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Michael Porter Jr., and others who took a medical redshirt and deferred their rookie campaign by a season.

Now, though, Williamson returns to a Pelicans team that stands among the NBA’s hottest squads. New Orleans has won 11 of its past 16 and boasts the league’s fifth-best non-garbage-time net rating over that span, according to Cleaning the Glass, joining the Jazz, Celtics, and Lakers as the only teams in the NBA to rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency during that stretch.

Ingram has continued to play at an All-Star level, underscoring his candidacy with a 49-point, eight-rebound, six-assist bravura performance to top the Jazz in overtime last Thursday. Derrick Favors has helped stabilize the team’s defense while adding a stiff-screening, extra-pass-making big man to a frontcourt rotation that has helped Gentry’s offense breathe; New Orleans has scored 5.5 more points per 100 possessions with the veteran center on the court than off it during this run. Redick has remained a space-creating sniper, drilling 46 percent of his 3-pointers. Lonzo Ball, remarkably, has joined him, nailing just under 36 percent of his triples while taking almost seven per game in what has been the best stretch of his young career.

Jrue Holiday came back Monday from an elbow injury that kept him on the shelf for two weeks and promptly delivered 36 points and excellent defense on rookie sensation Ja Morant in a win over Memphis—a victory that brought New Orleans within 3.5 games of the eighth-seeded Grizz. Everything seems to be going the Pelicans’ way at the moment … and now they (and we) get to open the most eagerly anticipated present of the 2019-20 NBA season.

There will be issues to figure out. How effectively can Williamson and Favors fit together in a frontcourt that looks light on shooting, allowing defenses to pack the paint and gum up the Pelicans offense? Will the integration of Zion and the redistribution of touches and field goal attempts derail what’s been a breakthrough first half for Ingram? (I’m cautiously optimistic here. Ingram is shooting a career-best 39.9 percent from 3-point range on more than six tries per game, drilling looks off the catch and off the dribble, which could help alleviate spacing concerns. Plus, Zion doesn’t need to pound the rock to make an offensive impact and could be a dynamic screening partner for Ingram, who’s been more productive finishing plays in the pick-and-roll this season than at any previous point in his career.) And when Gentry goes small to get all of New Orleans’s best weapons on the floor—Zion, Ingram, Holiday, Redick, and Ball—can they defend well enough to rack up the victories it will take to leap from 12th to eighth in the standings by mid-April?

The Pelicans have nearly three months to find the answers, one of the friendliest remaining schedules in the league, a handful of players playing their best ball of the season, and a generational talent entering the fray. Whether or not you’re as bullish on New Orleans’s chances of making the postseason as FiveThirtyEight—which, somewhat shockingly, pegs the Pels’ odds of cracking the top eight at 62 percent—the chance to finally see what the ping-pong balls and Griffin’s offseason maneuvering have wrought promises to offer an injection of excitement to kick-start the second half. What’s past is prelude; the future starts tonight. Put on your best pair of non-exploded shoes. It’s finally time to dance.