Zion Williamson, Pelicans have a chance to rewrite their reputations

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Very few people in the NBA evoke emotional responses like Zion Williamson. He’s been the cause behind fights on the court, on social media and with the officials — and that’s just in the past week.

Williamson’s biggest supporters call him the savior of basketball in New Orleans. His biggest critics view him as the personification of wasted potential.

Through the first five years of his career, the noise has centered around everything except what Williamson cares about most: basketball. He’s certainly contributed to it with the off-court drama he’s worked through and the myriad injuries that have kept him out of uniform.

But this season has been different. He’s been (mostly) healthy, playing in 49 of the Pelicans’ 60 games. He’s bought into the culture the Pelicans are trying to build. He’s said all the right things away from the court.

The irony is that, just as he’s done everything in his power to actually play basketball consistently, some of the attention he’s dealt with since high school has faded away.

He wasn’t a top-10 All-Star vote-getter among Western Conference forwards after finishing fourth last season. The Pelicans’ national TV games have dipped. (Wednesday’s game against the Indiana Pacers was just the eighth to appear on ESPN, ABC or TNT, and two of those were In-Season Tournament knockout-round games.) National talk shows spend much less time obsessing over his present and future after seeing him and his team fail spectacularly at the In-Season Tournament semifinals in Las Vegas. Other up-and-comers like Victor Wembanyama, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander now garner more of the spotlight. It’s allowed Williamson to work in the shadows in preparation for his next opportunity to prove he can become one of the league’s next great superstars.

But as the Pelicans — who currently hold the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference with a 35-25 record — make a push to secure Williamson’s first taste of the NBA postseason, he knows the hype around him will ramp up once again. And he knows much of the outside world will return to see if he’ll fall on his face like he did in Las Vegas.

He doesn’t mind, though.

“People don’t understand how much I really love this s—,” Williamson told The Athletic. “I pour everything into doing my best for the team and for the people who support me in New Orleans. I get it. You can only go off the information that’s in front of you. But that’s the great thing about the opportunity we have the rest of the way. We get to write our own story.”

The fact that he’s finally put together an extended period of on-court success is a significant reason why the Pelicans’ social media team fired back at Stephen A. Smith last week when the ESPN personality brought up many of those old, negative talking points to criticize Williamson.

Smith poked fun at Williamson’s weight and “how many burgers he’s eating.” He questioned the Pelicans star’s commitment to being in shape. He doubted the Pelicans’ chances of being a threat in the West without complete buy-in from the face of the franchise.

These criticisms, while harsh, were much more understandable in the immediate aftermath of Williamson’s sluggish 13-point performance as the Los Angeles Lakers crushed New Orleans by 44 points in Las Vegas nearly three months ago. That Smith chose to deliver them now revealed he, like Williamson’s other critics, clearly hasn’t paid attention since that moment.

Since that “total letdown” on Dec. 7, Williamson has been playing some of the best basketball of his career as New Orleans has quietly moved up the standings. In his last 18 games, Williamson is averaging 23.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists while shooting 56.3 percent from the field. He looks quicker than he has at any point in his professional career. His burst is back. He’s making explosive plays around the rim. And most importantly, he’s been consistently available.

Yet Williamson understands there’s only one way to erase some of the negativity that gets attached to his name.

“You’ve got to win. At this point (in the season), I’ve got to win,” Williamson said. “That’s the only way to show people.”

What “winning” looks like varies for each team in the crowded West playoff picture. A second-round exit would be a disaster for teams like Denver and the LA Clippers. For Williamson and the Pelicans, a second-round trip would be one of the signature accomplishments in franchise history.

So while putting wins on the board matters most, it will help Williamson’s reputation most if he can remind the world of the jaw-dropping, game-changing athleticism he flashed at such a young age.

The revival of “Point Zion” has created a way to do just that while giving the Pelicans the offensive identity they’ve desperately searched for since the start of the season. The league has never seen a 6-foot-6, 285-pound point guard who can run a team, control an offense and take 95 percent of their shots in the paint. As Williamson and his teammates has learned to adjust to one another, the Pelicans have realized they have tremendous success when the ball is in Williamson’s hands.

According to Synergy, the Pelicans have scored at least one point on 51.1 percent of the possessions in which Williamson operates as the pick-and-roll ballhandler, the sixth-best mark among players with at least 150 such plays this season. The Pels have also scored at least one point on 50.9 percent of Williamson’s isolations, which ranks seventh among players with at least 150 isolation possessions. The only other players who rank in the top 10 on both lists are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić, DeMar DeRozan and Gilgeous-Alexander.

 

Williamson has proven to be more than just a dominant scorer when the ball is in his hands. He’s a willing passer who keeps the offense flowing and has improved his understanding of how to punish double-teams. He’s recorded eight or more assists in six of his last 16 games after only reaching that number three times in his first 33 contests this season.

The more he improves in this role, the more the outside world will take notice of him executing a style of play very few others can imitate. He bullies everyone in the paint like an old-school center while also running the offense from the top of the key like a traditional point guard.

“What we’ve learned is that if we get the ball in Z’s hands early and let him go to work, it makes the game easier for everyone else,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “It puts the defense in a tough bind. Either they let him play one-on-one and he just gets to the paint over and over. Or you send the help, and Z always makes the right play when teams send a double at him. It’s a ‘Pick your poison’ type situation.”

Williamson is also playing the best defense of his career as his conditioning has improved. Spending more time around plus defenders such as Herb Jones, Dyson Daniels, Naji Marshall and Jose Alvarado has pushed Williamson to match their energy on that end of the floor. And as his explosiveness has returned, we’ve started to again see him appear from nowhere and send shots into the front row.

At the start of the season, Williamson was a flat-out defensive liability. Teams attacked Williamson as much as possible, forcing him to move his feet in open space. He wasn’t very good at it. Now, he’s taking more pride in stopping the person in front of him. He’s more mindful about being in the right spot at the right time on help defense. And, yes, he’s even attacking the defensive boards from time to time.

“We’re seeing Zion get better and better as the season progresses, and really on the defensive end. The blocks, moving his feet, staying in front of guys, contesting shots,” Green said. “It’s plays like that. You come over and block a shot … it allows us to get out in transition and that’s some of our best basketball.”

Perhaps those improvements will garner more attention if they hold up during the high stakes of the playoffs. But there is one element of Williamson’s game that will certainly get even more heated, and it’s one that’s driven the team crazy all season: foul calls.

Williamson ranks No. 2 in the NBA in points in the paint this season, yet is averaging just 6.7 free-throw attempts per game, a career low. There’s a short list of players who operate with the amount of physicality Williamson brings, and it still doesn’t result in foul shots as much as it should. Gilgeous-Alexander, Antetokounmpo and Dončić, to name three peers, are each above 8.9 attempts this season.

The Pelicans have noticed how Williamson gets smacked on the arm and upside the head regularly. They also believe referees routinely allow defenders to push him off his spot when he drives to the rim.

Such is life for players who are visibly bigger and stronger than most opponents. Just ask Shaquille O’Neal.

But the Pelicans are growing more annoyed by this trend. They’ve sent clips into the league office hoping to get Williamson more respect among the officials but have not been satisfied so far.

“It’s something that’s been happening for a while now since I’ve been here. It’s crazy. … Z goes to the rim about 15 times a game, and he gets hit on his arm (and) hit on his body,” Pels star Brandon Ingram said. “It wears on him every time he goes down the lane and gets hit and they don’t call it. He has to continue to make the refs make a decision. It takes a (toll) on him.”

There’s a good chance this conversation will dominate a few news cycles during the postseason, assuming New Orleans gets there. Fans love a good officiating controversy. They also love to question whether a big-time player is great enough to deserve the “star” treatment so many others receive.

At least those types of conversations would be better than the nonsense that has filled the vacuum in the past. Williamson may not admit it publicly, but his demeanor over the past few months suggests he’s somewhat enjoyed being under the radar. The last time he was the main topic of the national NBA conversation was after the In-Season Tournament, when there were some nasty things being said about him.

However, Williamson also understands that spotlight will return soon enough. Are he and his Pelicans teammates ready to show they have much more to offer than what they showed the last time the whole basketball world was watching?

If this version of Zion is the one attacking one of the top four seeds in the West for seven games, there should be a lot of conversations centered around him. And none of them will involve burgers.

(Top photo: Layne Murdoch Jr / NBAE via Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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