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Nass’ Trip Around the Association Vol. 3, Page Twelve

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What heights can the soaring Bayou Pels reach in the West?

The New Orleans Pelicans are currently 12-11, good for 8th in the constantly overly competitive Western Conference. In the In-Season tournament quarterfinals, we saw a New Orleans team that was vibrant, springy, fast, and versatile on both sides of the floor defeating a very talented Sacramento Kings team back on Monday night. On Thursday night, in the In-Season tournament Semi-Finals matchup vs the Los Angeles Lakers, all of the strengths they exploited against the Kings were instantly compromised by just a more physical, well-balanced Lakers team led by nonetheless the kid from St. Vincent/St. Mary’s, Lebron James.

NBA legend Charles Barkely was extremely displeased with the performance of specifically franchise star Zion Williamson’s in the blowout loss and did not hesitate to, as Barkley always does express his thoughts objectively and honestly about what is supposed to be one of the most polarizing players in all of the sport.

Number one, he’s gotta get in shape. I’ve told y’all I’ve been disappointed, he’s averaging six rebounds a game — a big guy that talented should never get less than ten rebounds — but he doesn’t run the floor at all.” Barkley said post-game on NBA’s Inside the NBA. “When you actually watch the game, now the Pelicans deserve some blame, they got him playing point forward which he can’t play point forward because he doesn’t move the ball enough. He doesn’t run hard enough, and they don’t go up and down enough.”

To cut to the chase, Williamson’s concerning body mass and diet is no new topic. Safe to say that, that particular factor of his career has single-handedly shifted our initial thoughts on what we believe should be a Hall of Fame career trajectory. Williamson has played fewer than 30 games in every season he’s been in the league besides his All-Star campaign in 2020-21. Let it be known thus far, that Williamson has been both available and productive. Despite all the flack about his body and the lack of urgency surrounding it, he’s still averaging a modest 22 points, five rebounds, and a shade under five dimes a night. The New Orleans Pelicans are still in the top half of the association in net rating even with injury woes hitting key regulars CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr., Trey Murphy, and Jose Alvarado this early. The Pelicans are one of seven teams to be ranked top 15 in both offensive and defensive ratings. (76ers, Celtics, Thunder, Nuggets, Knicks, and Magic). Still an encouraging and optimistic sample size for a team that still doesn’t feel like they’ve hit their stride yet and neither has their franchise star, yet.

It’s not only the concerns about the weight Zion Williamson carries around from a game-to-game basis and how it’s nearly impossible to sustain for an 82-game season without an inevitable major injury but also it feels like Zion is still trying to find his place in the Pelicans offense. Zion is still shooting well north of 55% from the floor on two-point field goals and 57% overall while the Pelicans have flirted with him bringing the ball up and giving him opportunities to make plays for others off the dribble. This may be partly due to the fact the Pelicans’ depth of ball handlers has been depleted to begin the season. CJ McCollum and Jose Alvarado have missed 13 and 14 games respectively before both returning to the hardwood last week.

Despite this, there have been some promising returns when Zion has the ball in his hands. Williamson is averaging a career-high in assists a game (4.8) and has shown us another dimension of his game that has progressed since he came in as a teenager. According to NBA’s Second Spectrum Williamson averages exactly 1.00 points per possession as the primary pick and roll ball handler (minimum 70 possessions) and shoots 54% from the floor in such situations. For context, that’s a higher points per-possession mark than Trae Young, Kevin Durant, Jalen Brunson, and Donovan Mitchell. The volume is slightly skewed compared to them but solid data for a wing that’s considered out of shape and is arguably the most scouted opposing player on the team.

The knock on Williamson this year has really been his underwhelming rebounding and free throw marks this season. His per-game averages in both departments (5.5 rebounds/game & 64% free throw percentage) are both on pace to be career lows and a lot of that may be tied to his conditioning and what shape he’s in. Iconic basketball journalist Bill Simmons also gave his thoughts on the current state of Williamson’s health after the Pelicans loss in the In-Season Tournament.  “I think Barkley even said it on my podcast last, it’s like the problem with carrying this weight, you can do it, you can cheat, you can look like a version of yourself but you’re going to get hurt,” Simmons concluded on his infamous Ringer podcast. With a lot of the Pelicans core returning to the hardwood, there’s still a glimpse of hope that with all pieces healthy and one of the best young 1-2 punches in the league continuing to grow together in Ingram and Williamson the Pelicans will be built to take on anyone in the Western Conference. 

We got to see for the first time in 2022 what a team surrounded by Brandon Ingram looks like in a playoff setting and nonetheless, Ingram impressed in his first NBA playoff series. Versus the defending Western Conference champs in the Phoenix Suns in a very tight-knit six-game series, Ingram showed the world the New Orleans Pelicans are not far off from being built to contend in the West. Ingram averaged 27 points, six rebounds, and six assists in that series showcasing his growth as a viable three-level scorer and orchestrator. He shot 47/40 splits from the field and the three-point line and continued to expose the Suns’ coverages with his shot-making and ability to read the floor with a composed pace we had yet to see from him on this particular stage. 

Ingram this season is currently putting up 23.7 points, five rebounds, and five assists a game while shooting a career-high two-point field goals (55%) and is reminding people he’s still one of the premier all-around wings the game has to offer. What makes Ingram so special on the offensive end isn’t just the advanced skill set he possesses for a player at his frame but it’s the way he exerts his skill set in the half-court. Brandon Ingram is currently shooting 46.1% from the field on pull-up jump shots (min. 100 pull-up jump shots attempted) which is only second to early MVP dark horse Shai-Gilgeous Alexander.

Ingram is also shooting 56.4% overall in isolation, generating an impressive 1.04 points per possession in such situations. A field goal percentage (56.4%) that ranks third in the NBA (min. 50 isolation possessions) and is a superior clip than those of Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, and Kevin Durant to name a couple. If that’s not a healthy indicator of what type of talent Ingram is then I’m not sure what is. Ingram isn’t just elusive on the perimeter but has been a daunting scorer on the go as well.

Ingram has a total of 274 total drives to the rim this season. He’s shooting 58.2% from the field on those drives which is only fifth in the NBA ( min. 150 total drives) only behind LeBron James, Giannis Antetkounmpo, Jayson Tatum, and Tyrese Haliburton. The only knock on Ingram’s game in 2023 has been his three-point stroke (shooting a career-low 30% from three this season) which comes as somewhat of a surprise because he shot 39% from downtown last season after cutting his diet of takes down to 3.6 3PA/game. Ingram is still respected from out there but maybe some of the returning key pieces will create some easier looks for him going forward. Ingram is a multifaceted wing who is never in a rush to create a shot for either himself or others. He uses his body well and his polished mechanics in the mid-post and pick and roll raise the floor of the slashing and perimeter shooting teammates. 

Zion and the terrorizing nature he is especially off the bounce with his nuclear athleticism has shown vast flashes of playing effectively off of Ingram and vice versa. The gravity of the young duo has opened up plenty of opportunities for teammates such as Trey Murphy, Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado, Jordan Hawkins, and others to thrive alongside. Zion may not be in peak shape or form this very second but with the Pelicans abundance of shooting, versatile plug-in play personnel, and another All-Star caliber wing to lean on, Williamson can play his way into shape while also providing All-Star production. Before the return of CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy, the New Orleans Pelicans’ lineup of Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Jonas Valanciunas, Dyson Daniels, and Herb Jones have been one of the league’s most productive five-man rotations with a net rating of +38, which ranks tenth in the NBA amongst all rotations that have spent at least a total of 80 minutes on the hardwood. 

I think the big question surrounding Zion’s overall fit is the imagination of what a team around him looks like with him as a featured number-one option in 2023. Given the hype and expectations coming into the NBA as the #1 overall pick, a lot of alarming questions come with such as; “Can he lead a franchise to a championship? Does he play “winning” basketball? Does he care? Does he make his teammates better?” can lead to agenda-driven narratives depending on your thoughts on the player and that can unwind to all sorts of outcomes depending on how the player may react to criticism whether it’s constructed or not. We won’t get an answer on what type of player Zion is and/or if he’s the guy that can check all those boxes off, at least until we see some progress physically in terms of improving his diet habits and how it’ll translate to the court.

Luckily enough thanks to his general manager and front office, Williamson is in a great situation to answer a lot of those questions but how soon will he? And how bad is he willing to answer them? Ingram has proven himself as a player who can carry an offense for significant stretches and has grown into a bonafide toe-to-toe alpha guy. Ingram since he arrived in New Orleans has had a bit of trouble staying available himself as he hasn’t played more than 60 games in a season since 2020-21 so availability has definitely been quite the theme in New Orleans. Can they change that?

Veteran star shooting guard CJ McCollum recently made his return to the starting lineup last week from a collapsed lung. McCollum’s value as a shot creator and secondary ball handler combined with his ability to play off the rock and stretch the floor is a very key component of the Pelicans offense. McCollum is huge in the non-Ingram and non-Williamson minutes because of how he can create instant offense. UConn standout and Rookie sharpshooter Jordan Hawkins is shooting 37% from the three-point line and averaging 12.9 points overall.

Herb Jones and Dyson Daniels are two valuable utility role players who can defend multiple positions. Both Jones and Daniels are amongst the league leaders in deflections. Trey Murphy, a career 40% three-point shooter, also just returned to the starting lineup giving the Pelicans another dimension of two-way versatility and just like McCollum continues to get his legs under him. Jose Alvarado wears his heart on his sleeve and his grit and effort go a long way for this Pelicans team. Jonas Valanciunas, the iron fist that boasts the middle on both sides of the floor is a very impactful screener and has been vital creating gaps and avenues for the Pelicans’ numerous shot creators as well as protecting the rim.

Larry Nance Jr. is currently still out with a rib injury he re-aggravated earlier this season. A valuable defender and rebounder, Nance Jr.’s flexibility to play/guard numerous positions allows the Pels to play around with different assortments of rotations and lineups. New Orleans Pelicans GM Trajan Landon has done an outstanding job building this team from the ground up and surrounding his franchise stars with high-level role players. The improved personnel has given the Pelicans a window where they feel confident they can realistically compete with both Williamson and Ingram approaching their prime years in the very near future. Well, that’s if their bodies allow them to.

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