With Zion Williamson back, Pelicans’ aspirations soar

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Zion Williamson’s return to a Pelicans squad that made a captivating postseason appearance without him last spring could transform New Orleans’ long-beleaguered NBA franchise into a marquee team.

Soon, the basketball world will see if the reality lives up to the hype.

“Winning for the first time when you have expectations is a big deal, and I think this is the first time the external expectations have reached what our own internal expectations have been,” Pelicans basketball operations chief David Griffin said. “We’re going to learn a lot about this group.”

Since being drafted first overall out of Duke in 2019, Williams has missed more games than he has played because of knee and foot injuries. But his potential for superstardom has been apparent. In the first 85 games of his NBA career, he has shot better than 60% and averaged nearly 26 points per game.

Williamson was an All-Star in his second season, when he played 61 games and averaged 27 points.

A broken foot and related setbacks sidelined him last season. But the 22-year-old says he’s fit as ever as he joins a lineup that includes prolific wing Brandon Ingram, high-scoring veteran guard CJ McCollum, sharpshooting center Jonas Valanciunas and defensive dynamo Herb Jones.

“We have a very special group,” Williamson said. “Everybody saw that last year.”

The Pelicans started last season 1-12 under first-year coach Willie Green. But after McCullum was acquired before the trade deadline, he, Ingram and Valanciunas led a young, feisty cast into the Western Conference play-in — and then into the playoffs before their ouster in six games by top-seeded Phoenix.

“They understand what we were able to accomplish and they want to build on that,” Green said. “There’s a bit of expectations out there and that’s good. That means we got a chance to be a good team.”

The Pelicans open the season at Brooklyn on Oct. 19.

GOING BIG

While the NBA has experienced a “small-ball” trend emphasizing pace, spacing and perimeter shooting, the Pelicans will go somewhat against the grain with Williamson and Valanciunas in the front court.

The 6-foot-6 Williamson is listed at 284 pounds (but appears trimmer now). The 6-11, 265-pound Valanciunas, whose shooting ability allows him to draw defenders away from the basket, averaged 17.8 points and 11.4 rebounds last season.

Valanciunas predicts that once he gets used to to playing alongside Williamson, “We can do big things — damage.”

STAYING THE COURSE

It took Griffin little more than a year to turn over the entire roster he inherited when he first came to New Orleans in 2019.

After a few more tweaks in the past year, the front office seems to like what it has, particularly after drafting Australian prospect Dyson Daniels eighth overall.

The Pelicans made no significant offseason roster moves and also didn’t change head coaches for the first time in three years. If the first half of the season goes well, Griffin might not make any major moves before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

“We’re really, really comfortable with the group we have,” Griffin said. “We’re really well-positioned because of our continuity.

“We’re going to be pretty mindful and slow to change the group,” Griffin said. “We want to see what it looks like playing in this environment (of high expectations) for the first time.”

OFF THE BENCH

The Pelicans’ depth can be seen in the handful of fan favorites coming off the bench, including energetic guard Jose “Grand Theft” Alvarado, 2021 top draft choice Trey Murphy III and Spanish center Willy Hernangomez, who was named Eurobasket MVP this summer after leading his national team to the title.

“That’s a crazy situation for us to have the amount of talent we have,” Griffin said. “In terms of our depth and ability to overcome the adversity of injury, we’re better positioned than we’ve ever been.”

HARD LESSONS

Williamson suspects the unwanted trials of his first few NBA seasons will serve him well.

“All the cons definitely helped me mature over time,” Williamson said. “That’s just the way of life — facing adversity and how you’re going to respond to it.”

Gesturing toward the Pelicans’ home court at the Smoothie King Center, Williamson added, “I’m judged for what I do out there. So, I’m just going to have to show y’all.”

LONG-TERM PLANS

The Pelicans have Williamson, McCollum and Ingram under contract for at least the next three seasons, flipping the narrative surrounding a franchise that saw stars such as Chris Paul and Anthony Davis ask out.

“It’s a good place to be,” Ingram said, adding that other players who’ve signed extensions since he did two seasons ago “see what’s going on.”

“They see how we bond with each other. How we play on the floor,” Ingram added. “We always kind of believed in each other and what we were doing.”

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