These New Orleans Pelicans, led by Zion Williamson, are not only a must-watch team for diehards surfing NBA League Pass, but anyone who is a fan of basketball.
Open up your calendar right now, pull out a Sharpie marker, and black out whatever you thought you were doing on Oct. 22, because the NBA has a present for you. After scoping out rookie sensation Zion Williamson probably since his high school days in South Carolina and definitely taking note of how the NCAA marketed the smithereens out of Williamson, they went ahead and gave us Williamson and his Pelicans on opening night against the defending champion Raptors. Pick out your favorite popcorn and make sure there’s a six pack in the fridge, because Williamson and the Pelicans are going to be one of the most watchable sports experiences in recent memory.
This team is Kyler Murray’s Sooners. They are the U.S. Women’s National Team. They are what Ocean’s 8, that remake with Sandra Bullock, was supposed to be — a supremely watchable group of talented people led by an undeniable star, figuring it out in front of our eyes.
Not only do we get to see how quickly Williamson can make good on the promise he flashed in high school and as a freshman at Duke, but we will find out whether the quickly reshaped Pelicans roster fits correctly with Williamson and can win right away. Fascinating players fill roster spots 1-15 in New Orleans, but to maximize a unique talent like Williamson, fit is vital.
This phenomenon already played out for Milwaukee and Philadelphia, two mega-teams that went all in over the past two years finding role players who could play off of their jumbo playmakers. While the team may not jell perfectly in year one, watching these Pelicans learn how to play as a team and discover an identity will be just as fun as the incredible highlights they’re sure to deliver.
No NBA comparison can prepare us for Williamson’s unique profile
The reigning National Player of the Year has already earned comparisons to everyone from LeBron James to Giannis Antetokounmpo to Ben Simmons, but none of those quite get at what makes Williamson special. This is a man for whom the sheer force of pivoting in a defensive stance tore open a sneaker made by the biggest shoe company on the planet.
Listed at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, Williamson’s athleticism is more surprising than perhaps anyone’s in the NBA. Entering a league full of physical marvels, he immediately joins a freakish class headlined by Antetokounmpo, James and Kevin Durant. That Williamson brings elite skill as a passer, multi-positional defender and ball-handler verges on unfair. Anyone who says they know what to expect from Williamson’s rookie season is lying to your face.
The roster built this summer by new executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin will look to Williamson to execute in the defensive free safety role he mastered at Duke and help create an efficient transition attack. Few in the nation could patrol the half-court and wreak havoc like Williamson as a freshman. He has the supernatural and typically dangerous ability to lag behind a play and recover to protect the basket.
Could Williamson struggle if teams try to take advantage of his occasionally slow feet or try to wear him down? Of course. But if he can impact the game at a high level defensively and turbo-charge New Orleans’ fast break offense, that’s a huge victory, and he’ll waltz into Rookie of the Year. Anything else is, at least for his rookie season, cake.
Can Ingram turn flashes into a feast?
We’re talking about excitement here, and in terms of potential, the second guy behind Zion Williamson has to be Brandon Ingram, the scoring forward and former No. 2 overall pick. Before blood clots ended his 2018-19 campaign early, Ingram was building into the menace we thought he might be coming out of Duke at age 18.
Sporting a career-high 23.2 percent usage rate and 1.11 points per shooting possession, Ingram undoubtedly put together the most efficient season of his career heading into the final year of his rookie deal. He continued to attack the rim, with 44 percent of his overall shot attempts coming in close, according to Cleaning the Glass, and preferred mid-range to 3-point range as usual.
The main boost in his overall efficiency as a scorer resulted from making more of those tough shots from mid-range. However, Ingram looked more decisive and confident creating space for himself to get those shots off and was comfortable using his length to create open looks. Plan A was always to use a screen to get space from 15-18 feet, but even though teams should expect that at this point, Ingram’s potency driving and his confidence creating open mid-range looks helped him out.
Still, the end goal for Alvin Gentry and the Pelicans’ coaching staff should be to develop Ingram as a drive-and-kick maestro who can create great offense in the half-court. That’s somewhere in his game, and not far below the surface.
Even great rim protectors will have trouble containing a quick, 6-foot-9 freight train with a head of steam. Such things will never be made clear to us viewers, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say watching LeBron James for a full season in Los Angeles helped Ingram understand how his physical skills could be a massive advantage. Regardless, he was very effective around the basket in 2018-19, converting 63 percent of his layups and dunks, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Persistence was key for Ingram as he learned, sometimes with the course of a single game or possession, that he could get to angles few could follow.
With teammates like Williamson as well as smart veterans like J.J. Redick, Derrick Favors and Jrue Holiday around him, Ingram can also continue to maximize the gravity he has heading downhill by looking to create for teammates even more. Last year saw a step back for him as a playmaker statistically playing alongside the likes of James and Rajon Rondo, but Ingram did cut back his turnovers to just 13.2 percent of possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Much of Ingram’s might as a passer come from two basic principles: He’s a very smart player who reads the floor well, and he is a menace in the open court.
The gravity referenced above when he’s barreling toward the basket is particularly impressive to see when he gets out in transition. That ability is reason for optimism that he can translate that playmaking to the half-court, and it is also why he could be an incredibly exciting fit alongside Williamson and Lonzo Ball, two other players whose primary offensive impact comes in space.
The biggest reason to get excited about Ingram offensively is that he doesn’t simply make basic reads like the ones above. At times the past two seasons, Ingram patiently beat the defense with next-level passes that popped off the screen.
Not only did Ingram develop the accuracy and timing on his passes from a physical standpoint, he also found out he could use the threat of his finishing and mid-range shooting to make defenses pause. Those moments are deadly against a player like Ingram, who is increasingly deadly as both a scorer and passer.
Assuming Ingram recovers from all the various injuries that ended his 2018-19 season, he is the second-most promising and exciting young talent in New Orleans. Ingram’s role in the fast break attack will be huge, and he will have more space to breathe and more depth around him than he ever did with the Lakers.
Putting the puzzle together
The Pelicans have a ton of toys to play with, including the team’s other two 2019 first-round picks, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes, both of whom looked tremendous at NBA Summer League. They also have to figure out how best to use all the veterans as well as the rest of their haul from the Lakers.
Few coaches in the league deserve the benefit of the doubt more than Gentry when it comes to creating a good offense out of so many pieces who thrive in a fast pace. It will work, the only question is to what degree.
Lineup questions are another fascinating shovel in the sandbox Gentry will play in this season. Many have wondered how Redick factors into a starting lineup presumed to already include Holiday and Ball in the backcourt. Some have called for Ingram to be put into a bench role where his ball dominance can be a positive for the team. Ball, with his own injury concerns, could also be a Sixth Man candidate. Fun role players like E’Twaun Moore and Kenrich Williams should easily outperform their tiny roles on this squad.
Throw in the fact that unique talents like Ball, Holiday and the non-Zion rookies are sure to put on a show night to night as well as the stars, and this becomes not only a must-watch team for diehards surfing League Pass, but anyone who is a fan of basketball. Jump in.