NBA

New Orleans Pelicans 2022-23 NBA preview: Zion Williamson’s return puts the rest of the league on notice

The New Orleans Pelicans have high hopes for this season, and rightfully so. With Zion Williamson back, their starting lineup figures to be among the league’s best five-man units and they’ve got good depth with a pair of high-flying athletes in Larry Nance Jr. and Jaxson Hayes. Plus they’ve got Trey Murphy, Garrett Temple, Devonte’ Graham, Naji Marhsall, Willy Hermangomez and spark plug Jose Alvarado all figuring to fill meaningful bench roles. 

Without Williamson, New Orleans finished as the No. 8 seed last season and made things pretty tough on the top-seeded Suns in a six-game first-round loss. Surely they believe they can rise above the play-in and into the West’s top six this season, but that’s a very tall order given the depth of the conference. 

Here’s a quick look at the Pelicans’ roster, which is largely unchanged from last season, followed by three key storylines to watch as the season progresses. 

Key changes

  • Additions: Dyson Daniels, drafted No. 8 overall
  • Losses: Tony Snell

Roster

Top of the key: Keep Zion healthy

This is priority number one, two and three for the Pelicans. If it doesn’t happen, they aren’t going anywhere. If it does, New Orleans has something potentially special cooking. 

Williamson has managed to play just 85 games over the first three years of his career, yet the Pelicans still handed him a five-year extension worth at least $193 million with a chance for that number to jump as high as $231 million. 

That’s for good reason. When he’s been on the court, he’s been great. Make that historically great. In 2020-21, his only season of record to speak of, Williamson logged his name into the NBA annals as the only player in history to average better than 25 points per game on at least 61 percent shooting, and in actuality his numbers were decidedly better than even that gaudy standard: 27.0 ppg on a .649 true shooting percentage. He was 20 years old. 

Now he’s 22. He appears to be in incredible shape. And he’s going to be operating plenty as a point guard. Yes, you heard that right. It won’t be the first we’ve seen of this, but it’s been a while so you’re forgiven if you’ve forgot that the last time we saw Zion playing he was bringing the ball up the floor and running pick-and-roll. 

True, that was under Stan Van Gundy, but expect to see plenty of this under Willie Green as well. Zion has playmaking instincts and a handle that belies his frame. His spin move to get to his left is filthy. He’s crafty in gaps and almost a sure bet to get into the paint as a downhill attacker, which forces the help and subsequent rotations every NBA offense is looking to create. 

Two seasons ago, Zion, including passes, was good for nearly a point per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, per Synergy. If you like traditionally backwards offense, how about CJ McCollum being the screener for Zion and popping for open 3s? Yes, please. 

In the half court, while unconventional, point guard Zion makes perfectly common sense through the lens of simply putting the ball in the hands of your best player who has shown he has the goods to put that creative freedom to efficient use. 

Next up: Enough defense?

New Orleans registered as a top-10 defense over the last two-plus months of last season. Every coach says defense is a priority, but Willie Green has honestly made it happen. The effort will be there across the board, and the bench can wreak havoc with Herbert Jones (already one of the best defenders in the league) and Alvarado (a thorn in the side of every point guard just trying to bring the ball up the court without being harassed within an inch of his life) anchoring things, but can the starting unit bring the same two-way energy on a nightly basis?

The last time we saw Williamson and Brandon Ingram playing together, they were both bad defenders. Williamson, in particular, was exceptionally bad in most cases. The good news is Williamson’s presence will take some of the scoring burden off Ingram, which, in turn, should allow him to allocate more energy to the defensive side. 

Ingram made a lot of defensive improvements last season. The Willie Green effect was real on him. Williamson and McCollum need to be at least average defenders, and hopefully Jonas Valanciunas can make drop coverage work, but with the Pelicans running out the aforementioned starting lineup that will be devoid of a traditional point guard, they are going to be versatile and athletic along the perimeter — particularly when Jaxson Hayes checks in — with Jones as the nucleus. 

Again, if you haven’t already secured a ticket on the Jones bandwagon, sorry. It’s filled to capacity with a waiting list a mile long. As a rookie Jones took on the toughest defensive assignments on the planet, and he did so in the playoffs no less. Per BBall Index, Jones’ matchup difficulty ranked as the toughest among all rookies and fourth-toughest league-wide last season, and yet, despite taking on the highest level of scorers on a nightly basis, Jones saved more points defensively than any rookie wing since 2009. (He was, in fact, No. 1 in points saved among all defensive wings and No. 7 in the whole league, per BBall Index.) 

Ultimately, New Orleans doesn’t need to be an elite defense. But if it can flirt with a top-10 ranking, the offense is going to be, or at least should be, more than potent enough to land them among the league’s best point-differential squads. 

One more thing: Ingram’s playmaking

Playing without a traditional point guard is only possible when you have wings worthy of expanded creative roles. We talked about Williamson as an initiator, and Ingram factors heavily into this equation as well. 

Ingram, who was one of just 11 players to average at least 22 points, five assists and five rebounds last season, has sharpened his facilitation instincts each of his three seasons with New Orleans, culminating in a 28.6 assist percentage (97th percentile among all forwards) last season, per Cleaning the Glass. 

It doesn’t surprise you anymore when Ingram, who can really see the floor at his height, makes an advanced read and delivers a top-shelf pass. He doesn’t just create for others as a byproduct of his scoring; he seemingly looks for dimes now. How Ingram makes life easier on Williamson, and vice versa, will go a long way in telling us what level of postseason threat New Orleans turns out to be. 

Nationally televised games

If you’re not in the New Orleans market and you don’t plan on forking out League Pass cash, but you want to see Zion Williamson play as often as possible, mark your calendars for these 11 nationally televised games. 

  • Oct. 25, vs. Dallas (TNT)
  • Oct. 28, at Phoenix (ESPN)
  • Nov. 15, vs. Memphis (TNT)
  • Jan. 31, at Denver (TNT)
  • Feb. 7, vs. Atlanta (TNT)
  • Feb. 10, vs. Cleveland (ESPN)
  • Feb. 15, at Lakers (ESPN)
  • March 1, at Portland (ESPN)
  • March 8, vs. Dallas (ESPN)
  • March 28, at Golden State (TNT)
  • March 30, at Denver (TNT)



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