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Zion Williamson: Rookie’s return enhances the Pelicans on and off the court

Zion Williamson is finally suiting up for the New Orleans Pelicans, and it enhances the organization both on and off the court.

One of the most captivating players in college basketball history, Williamson possesses a tantalizing skill set. He bullies defenders in the post, denies shots with ease, is a well-rounded defender, hits the boards at a high level, has a bit of an outside game, and he can handle the rock.

In his NBA debut on Jan. 22, Williamson drained four three pointers en route to scoring 17 consecutive points for the Pelicans in the fourth quarter. Yep, totally saw that coming.

Unfortunately for the Duke prodigy, he missed the first three months of the regular season due to a knee injury. Subsequently, it took a bit of air out of the Pelicans’ sails, and their 17-27 record without Williamson isn’t exactly something to boast about.

Now he’s healthy.

Williamson’s mere presence is providing an indescribable vibe in NOLA. The bulk of NBA fans want to see everything he does, whether it’s an emphatic block, a posterizing dunk, or taking a picture with LSU head coach Ed Orgeron (this didn’t happen, but it would be awesome if it did).

Even when a team is out of playoff contention and/or has struggled in recent memory, having a young stud with star potential or executing highlight reel plays on a nightly basis gives a fan base reason to be optimistic. There’s countless reasons to be optimistic about the Pelicans’ future — unlike last season.

One year ago, the Pelicans were troubled with turmoil. Their franchise player and one of the best players in the sport, Anthony Davis, wanted to be traded, and Pelicans brain trust didn’t come to terms on a trade with another team, forcing head coach Alvin Gentry into an uncomfortable situation with his mainstay player. Shortly after the deadline, general manager Dell Demps was fired and replaced by David Griffin.

The situation loomed over the organization for the rest of the season.

Ultimately, Griffin orchestrated a blockbuster trade in the offseason with the Los Angeles Lakers, netting Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, three first-round draft picks, a first-round pick swap, and cash. After trading back in the NBA Draft with the Atlanta Hawks with the Lakers’ number four pick, the Pelicans selected Texas center Jaxson Hayes, which came nine selections after drafting Williamson.

A young core of Williamson, Hayes, Ingram, Ball, and Hart looked deadly. Now it’s together, and the youngsters complement each others’ skill sets.

Zion Williamson can interchangeably play inside and outside; Hayes is a physical specimen who clogs up the paint and defends the rim; Ingram scores off the dribble; Ball is a crafty playmaker; Hart is a nifty scorer.

Williamson’s offensive versatility takes some pressure off everyone’s shoulders. Taking into account that Ingram is averaging an astonishing 25.0 points per game and is shooting with more efficiency, imagine how dangerous he can be with Williamson attracting an equal amount of attention? It gives Ball another player to look for and opens up space inside for Hayes.

Meanwhile, the Pelicans have veterans such as Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, and Derrick Favors, who are reliable contributors. Holiday is a proven playmaker adept at serving as a go-to scorer; Redick is one of the best shooters in the NBA; Favors is a steady, two-way big man who’s averaging 10.0 rebounds per game this season.

Couple the young talent and proven commodities: why can’t the Pelicans make a second-half push for the playoffs?

While they’re four and a half games out of the playoffs in the Western Conference, the Memphis Grizzlies, the current occupier of the eighth seed in the conference, are a young team that, while vibrant and on the rise, aren’t a lock to secure a playoff spot. The San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns, and Portland Trail Blazers, who are all ahead of the Pelicans, have exhibited inconsistency this season and/or have a multitude of decisions to make before the NBA trade deadline.

The Pelicans, on the other hand, are playing with house money, as they were essentially written off before Williamson’s debut and probably still are by some. They have a well-rounded roster that can score, shoot, rebound, and defend. It includes veterans who have been there, done that and youngsters coming into their own.

This is an exciting team that can only improve with more reps together. What does a full-blown version of this group look like in three years?

Ingram is tapping into his potential, Ball looks comfortable with the ball in his hands, Hayes is an athletic, two-way big man, and Williamson is finally getting his first taste of the NBA game. Heck, their fans are freaking out over everything Zion Williamson does. Just look at the crowd reaction with every play he makes in the team’s Jan. 24 matchup with the Denver Nuggets.

The Pelicans have a rare breed on their hands. Basketball players that are 6-foot-6, 284 pounds don’t play with the aggression, speed, and confidence that Williamson exemplifies. In college, he was a pig among guinea pigs in the paint.

It’s like watching a 6-foot-6 version of Shaquille O’Neal, if the latter operated with the ball in his hands more often. Who doesn’t want to watch that 82 times a year?

The excitement in New Orleans began when the team won the NBA lottery with the seventh-best odds, it trickled into the offseason, was sidetracked by an injury, and has never been stronger than it is in 2020. There’s a vibe around the Pelicans that has never existed, even when they advanced to the second round of the playoffs two seasons ago. It feels like the start of something special, something sustainable.

Zion Williamson isn’t just enhancing the New Orleans Pelicans roster: he’s enhancing their brand.