With training camp right around the corner, the Pelicans are entering a new era in their basketball existence with the presence of the No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, Zion Williamson.
Williamson will be looked on as the franchise’s savior, a player who will not only make the Pelicans more popular but will also carry the team on his back for the next decade or so. But can he truly lead a franchise to the Promised Land in the near future?
Here are four burning questions for the Pelicans ahead of NBA training camp:
4. Is this team built to succeed or to lose?
This Pelicans team has a lot of young blood that suggests they will lose a ton of games and miss the playoffs next season. But with veterans Jrue Holiday, J.J. Redick, E’Twaun Moore and Derrick Favors on the roster, they will be competitive on many nights.
Based on the team’s current makeup, management wants the young players to grow together as a unit over the next few seasons before they can truly compete with the rest of the league. But you have to wonder why veterans such as Redick and Favors, two players who could have been on championship contenders, signed with the Pelicans.
More than likely, even the Pelicans themselves don’t know whether they can win with this roster or not.
With so many new faces on the team, training camp will give head coach Alvin Gentry a preview of what his rebuilt team can and cannot do. The Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings are probably going to be their rivals for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
In a perfect world, the Pelicans will make it to the playoffs next year with this roster and come back the following year more mature and ready to go deeper in the postseason.
But the ideal scenario rarely happens for young teams.
Expect the Pelicans to be mediocre at best and near the bottom of the standings at worst. They were built to make some noise in the West…except that won’t happen until the 2020-21 season at the earliest.
3. Can Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday co-exist in the Pelicans’ backcourt?
Neither Ball nor Holiday is a shooter, so training camp could decide which of the two will be the starting point guard. But the initial plans appear to be for the Pelicans to use both players in the backcourt at the same.
They can’t shoot, but they can defend with the best of them. Both players ranked among the top-10 point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus the past two seasons. The hope is that with a backcourt that can stifle opposing guards from setting up their teams’ offenses, they’ll be able to keep other teams from scoring.
Ball still hasn’t justified being taken with the No. 2 overall pick of the 2017 NBA Draft. But playing in a new environment could unlock his potential and show fans why the Los Angeles Lakers were so high on him in the first place.
In Holiday’s case, he’ll be playing shooting guard when he and Ball are on the floor at the same time, just like when Rajon Rondo was still with the Pelicans.
Holiday had a career year last season, averaging 21.2 points, 7.7 assists, 5 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. But his 35.5 percent shooting from 3-point land is alarming and it has to improve if his partnership will Ball is going to work.
Ball, a career 31.5 percent shooter from deep, also has so much room to improve in this department.
If this experiment doesn’t work, expect Redick, a career 41.3 percent shooter from three, to take the starting guard spot from Ball.
2. Can the former Lakers move on from their past failures?
Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart have never tasted the playoffs in their young professional careers. Even when the Lakers added LeBron James to the roster last season, the trio, along with Kyle Kuzma, didn’t exactly elevate their games to match the four-time MVP’s.
Have they matured enough to the point that they can play consistently well on a nightly basis?
The organization wants to develop a winning attitude from its core players. Williamson is coming off of a winning program at Duke University so he knows what winning looks like from the collegiate level.
As the cornerstone of the franchise, it is imperative that the Pelicans surround Williamson with winners, rather than whiners. With the team currently in a “soft” rebuilding mode, it’s important that they have a solid foundation that shows resilience in the face of adversity.
Inasmuch as Williamson will get the lion’s share of the attention, many eyes will be on Ball, Ingram and Hart early in the season to compare their performance from the previous year.
The spotlight will be less glaring in New Orleans compared to L.A. and this should help them to focus more on their progress rather than outright production.
This season could be the defining season of their careers.
1. Is Zion Williamson the second coming of LeBron James?
The comparisons between Williamson and LeBron James are quite understandable. Both were athletic wonders when they were drafted by their respective franchises, both were No. 1 picks and both were considered the most marketable player of their respective drafts.
Not only that, though Williamson signed with Jordan Brand, he essentially made a deal with Nike, the shoe company where James currently has a lifetime contract.
On the court, however, Williamson’s ceiling doesn’t appear to be as high as James’, but the rookie’s ability to excite a crowd and carry a team to success mirrors that of the four-time MVP’s.
As the first pick of last June’s draft, Williamson is already facing tremendous pressure to be named the league’s top freshman and win the Rookie of the Year award. If he’s going to have a career like James’, he has to achieve that once-in-a-lifetime honor.
Here are a few accomplishments that Williamson should reach or come close to if he is indeed going to be James’ equal, at least in his first year:
– Average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists (James averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists)
– Be named Rookie of the Month from November to April
– Carry the team to 18 more wins than the season before
– Win Rookie of the Year
It’s a tall order, but if he can reach at least two of those goals, he’ll surely be compared to James even more. The 18 or more additional wins from last season is a tall order since the Pelicans were good enough to win 33 games. Winning 50 games or more for them will be too much, especially because they play in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Is Williamson going to be just as good as James was in his rookie year? Probably. But don’t be surprised if he develops into a generational talent and be mentioned in the same breath as the all-time greats before long.