The Pelicans are finding their way without Zion Williamson

Last month, Zion Williamson knocked the ball off the backboard, caught it in the air, crossed it between his legs and slammed it down before falling back to the ground. This month, he drove into the paint, jumped from the restricted circle and launched into a 360-degree slam. These were the Cirque du Soleil-esque highlights that Pelicans fans expected to see Williamson perform every night after New Orleans selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft.

The only problem? None of those highlights took place during a game. The first was sent to Williamson’s instagram story of an empty gym, and the second arrived during pregame warm-ups before the Pelicans defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in the play-in tournament.

It has been nearly a year since Williamson last played in a live game, as a result of foot surgery that has been a long time healing. Without him, the Pelicans have made an amazing run in the playoffs and are giving the Phoenix Suns all they can handle in their first-round series. The Pelicans’ performance has left basketball fans everywhere, and especially in New Orleans, wondering how good this young team could be if Williamson were there.

The Pelicans tied the series, 2-2, with a spirited 118-103 win at home over Phoenix on Sunday. The Suns were up 2 at halftime, but New Orleans outscored them by 12 in the third quarter and led by 18 en route to victory. The home crowd was buzzing, the kind of atmosphere that could become routine as the team continues to find itself, with and without Williamson.

As a high school student, Williamson was hyped like no other player since LeBron James. His high-flying dunks made him a social media celebrity and a coveted recruit, but some scouts wondered if a 6-foot-6, 280-pound forward could thrive in college basketball or the NBA. In his only season at Duke, Williamson. It left no doubt about his abilities. In his collegiate debut against Kentucky, he scored 28 points in 23 minutes on 11-for-13 shooting and produced the first of many jaw-dropping highlights when he blocked a 7-footer with both hands before leading a fast break and find RJ Barrett for a bucket in transition.

During that Duke season, Williamson’s dunks continued to strip the paint off the tires and were broadcast repeatedly on “SportsCenter.” But he proved to be more than a human highlight reel. He showed an uncanny ability to see passing lanes before they appeared on offense, and to cut them down on defense, where he averaged 2.1 steals per game. Despite his size, the Blue Devils often played Williamson at 5, and he defended the rim admirably, averaging 1.8 blocks per game.

“This kid is… he’s in a class of his own,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. told reporters in March 2019. “Certainly he is a special basketball player, but as a young man he has maturity. It’s not Common. It really is rare. How humble he is. How cool, exciting. He is exquisite. He’s simply the best”.

In one of the most memorable moments of Williamson’s college career, on the road against No. 3 Virginia, he pulled off a seemingly impossible block against a future top-five pick, De’Andre Hunter. After initially defending shooting guard Kyle Guy outside the 3-point line, Williamson chased a pass to a wide-open Hunter in the opposite corner. Covering 25 feet in two seconds, Williamson launched like he was from Cape Canaveral and hit Hunter’s shot in the fourth row of the stands.

After tearing his meniscus in the 2019 NBA preseason, Williamson appeared in just 24 games during his first season in New Orleans. Nonetheless, he was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. The following season, he averaged 27 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game en route to his first All-Star selection. He proved to be one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA, at one point shooting more than 50 percent from the floor in 25 straight games. his average 20.3 points in the paint per game was more than any player since Shaquille O’Neal. It’s Williamson’s ability to score easily in half-court sets that New Orleans has missed the most this year.

With Williamson sidelined again this season, the Pelicans seemed listless to start the year. They won just one game in their first 13 and spent most of the first three months in the bottom of the Western Conference. But Willie Green, his first-year head coach, managed not to let the team get hung up on questions about when Williamson would return. Instead, he focused on developing other young stars: Trey Murphy, a first-round pick; Herbert Jones, a second-round pick; and undrafted point guard Jose Alvarado have emerged as surprisingly mature and effective rookies. As the trade deadline approached, the Pelicans had become an annoying, physical defensive team and had risen to 10th in the West.

Trading with the Portland Trail Blazers for shooting guard CJ McCollum took some of the offensive pressure off their leading scorer, Brandon Ingram, and gave the Pelicans a much-needed veteran leader in the locker room. Ingram and McCollum developed a quick chemistry despite playing only 15 games together during the regular season. When McCollum and Ingram shared the floor with center Jonas Valanciunas, the Pelicans posted an amazing 119.2 points per 100 possessions. The strengths the team has developed, from rebounding to offensive transitions to scoring in the paint, are a perfect fit for Williamson’s abilities. And when New Orleans’ offense stalls in the middle court, it’s hard not to imagine how much more pressure he could put on defenses with 60 percent shooters in his arsenal.

In previous matchups against a healthy Williamson, the Suns have often assigned 6-foot-11 center Deandre Ayton to guard him. As Williamson led Ayton to the perimeter, travel lanes that had once resembled the freeway on a Friday afternoon suddenly opened up. There’s no question a healthy Williamson would make an impact in this series. With the Suns’ starting shooting guard, Devin Booker, outcast Due to a hamstring injury, Williamson’s return could transform the series. And even if he couldn’t put New Orleans above the reigning NBA champions, his presence would be an opportunity for the Pelicans’ core players to gain experience playing together in high-stakes situations.

According ESPN, Williamson and the franchise have a “difference of opinion” on whether he is healthy enough to play. But the team hasn’t officially ruled it out. Whatever tension exists between Williamson and the Pelicans, it’s likely to spill over into the offseason, with Williamson eligible for a rookie-max extension after playing just 85 games over three seasons.

“Some things need to remain private, but I will say this: what Z is going through is extremely difficult,” Green told reporters in February. “As a player and as a person, I have been through injuries. No excuses from me, but it’s hard. You’re weighing a lot right now. You are weighing when you are going to continue playing. Many things go through your head. For us here, for me, it’s having compassion and understanding what you have to go through to get healthy.”

Until Williamson’s return, all that’s left for his fans to do is rewatch the best moments, overanalyze the new ones, and wonder what it could be.

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