The actual playing of games is all over for every NBA team except the Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics. Most of those organizations know what they will be working with as a core to start next season, though, especially those with NBA Finals aspirations. The New Orleans Pelicans are among those playoff contenders largely thanks to what is expected from Zion Williamson over the next 12 months.

New Orleans has gotten 184 games over five seasons from the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and that's put the Pelicans under considerable pressure now that Williamson's $197 million contract has kicked in. Anyone can look good walking into the arena making fashion statements worth tens of thousands of dollars, but it's the million-dollar smiles or blank-faced frowns after the game tell the real tale. With that in mind, the Pelicans will either hit it big or go bankrupt betting the house on Williamson to hit the following five benchmarks in the 2024-25 campaign.

Pelicans hoping Zion Williamson can pour in the points

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) reacts to making a basket against Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) during the second half of a play-in game of the 2024 NBA playoffs at Smoothie King Center.
Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Zion Williamson wears Jordan Brand sneakers after having signed a seven-year, $75 million deal with them in 2019. The Duke one-and-done star was supposed to be the company's next transcendent, generational talent. Williamson's slams wowed the youth and his smile was remembered even by grandmothers just buying shoes for spoiling purposes. Defense wins champions, sure. Points win games and get on more of the highlight shows. Williamson and the small-market Pelicans could use the exposure.

Leaning heavily on the Jordan connections and previous scoring averages, New Orleans needs more than 23 points per game from Williamson. He averaged 22.9 points per game last season, so this is not asking much. The soon-to-be 24-year-old was at 22.5 points as a rookie under Alvin Gentry, then 27 PPG (over 61 games) with Stan Van Gundy in charge. Williamson missed Willie Green's first year at the helm, but he was at 26 points per game in the 2022-23 campaign before this season's dip.

Williamson had 14 games with 30-plus points last season, finishing as the NBA's 20th-best scorer. Sure, he made the NBA All-Star team at just over 22 points per game, but the scoring benchmark for him has to be 25.5 points per game in order for the Pelicans to be in the mix for one of the Western Conference's top-six seeds. An All-NBA team is the next level up past All-Star and Williamson is just now entering his prime. Making that sort of leap is well within his reach.

Zion Williamson must score with easy efficiency

The Pelicans do not need any hero ball from their All-Stars, just solid leadership from the front. There can be no taking a back seat from now on for Williamson. The front office has built what some folks believe is the deepest team in the league. Williamson needs to focus on keeping everyone involved, using the resulting available space to score at a clip of over 60 percent from the field.

Williamson's shot profile is fine. The three-pointers and midrange game will come, as will the wall-busting floaters. The rumbling point forward must continue to pressure the rim so Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III, and others have room to fire away from behind the arc with no defender in sight. The paint will be far less populated once the opposing defense has been burned enough.

Last season was Williamson's worst percentage-wise when it came to his efficiency from the floor (57 percent) but the extra workload has to be factored in. Getting back above 60 percent shooting without passing off too much of his offensive responsibilities has to be something Williamson figures out to start the season next year.

Zion Williamson needs to work well with others

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) reacts with New Orleans Pelicans head coach Willie Green on a time out in the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers during a play-in game of the 2024 NBA playoffs against the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center.
Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The easiest way for Williamson to boost his field goal percentage while keeping teammates involved enough is simple. Sharing the ball is the foundation for any good team at any level. Williamson went from 2.1 assists per game as a rookie to a career-high of five per game last season.

A six-pack of dimes does more than rhyme. It's a mantra that will make things very difficult for anyone trying to corral Williamson's high-level passing. If Green can get more than six assists per game from his leading star, it makes creating opportunities for the supporting cast much easier.

The benchmark for assists has to be another career high, whatever that may look like. The Pelicans still have time to figure out the finer points once Williamson finds out what works and how to best put others around him in a position to succeed.

Pelicans pleading for pride on the glass

Points, assists, and high-percentage shots come best when operating from a position of strength, and the strongest advantage in basketball is numbers in transition. Save for blocks and steals, rebounding is the best way to get out ahead of your opponent. The Pelicans have done well under Green on the glass, but Williamson can do more to help boost a top-10 rebounding squad to elite levels.

The Pelicans were tenth in rebound percentage last season with Williamson chipping in 5.8 boards per game,but the advanced metrics suggest he should be doing much more. Williamson was 101st in rebounds per 100 possessions among players who logged 30 minutes in at least 55 games last season. Naji Marshall, Kenrich Williams, Josh Hart, and Jaxson Hayes were all better rebounders than Zion in 2023-24. That's borderline unacceptable from one of the most athletic players on the planet.

Rebounds per game is a difficult benchmark to set due to opportunities, total shots, pace of play, and blowouts. Still, Williamson needs to be closer to a top-50 rebounder instead of on the fringes of the top-100.

Zion Williamson needs to make his first NBA Playoffs appearance

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) dribbles against New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) during the second half at Smoothie King Center.
Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Making the NBA Playoffs is a team-dependent achievement. Perhaps no player drafted in the last ten years has a brighter spotlight shining on them when it comes to a lack of playoff success than Williamson. He battled LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the NBA Play-In Tournament this past season, but pulled up with a hamstring injury late in that loss.

The benchmark here? Be available when the most important games on the biggest stage are being played.