Zion Williamson’s future could hinge on Pelicans’ trajectory

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The future of power forward Zion Williamson and the trajectory of the New Orleans Pelicans will be prominent, interwoven subplots throughout this NBA season.

It’s Year 3 for Pelicans basketball operations chief David Griffin and his overhaul of the franchise. The powerful, high-scoring and charismatic Williamson became the centerpiece of that project when he was drafted first overall in 2019.

But Williamson still awaits his first taste of the NBA playoffs and now has his third head coach in three seasons in the newly hired Willie Green.

Williamson will be eligible for a rookie maximum contract extension next summer, and fans in New Orleans hope he won’t be so disillusioned with the Pelicans by then that he becomes the first player to reject such an offer in favor of a quicker path to (restricted) free agency in 2023.

To Griffin, the past two seasons were disappointing, yet understandable growing pains as he and general manager Trajan Langdon try to reshape the Pelicans’ roster for sustainable small-market success. Griffin has eschewed high-dollar splashes in free agency while crafting a roster defined more by youth and potential.

The 2021-22 roster has “the right guys to achieve something really special, so we feel a great deal of optimism, quite frankly,” Griffin said, emphasizing that his front-office staff took not just players’ skills and styles of play into account, but also how they relate to teammates and coaches. “We’ve gone out of our way to identify the pieces that didn’t fit on the court and off.”

But the Pelicans will still need Williamson to stay healthy, which was a challenge his rookie season and could be again. He had surgery to repair a foot fracture this summer. Williamson predicted he’ll return for the regular season opener, but whether that timeline holds true remains to be seen.

The addition of versatile center Jonas Valanciunas in a trade with Memphis brings the ability to draw big defenders away from the paint with his shooting range and create more space for Williamson to operate inside. A deal with Charlotte brought in guard Devonte’ Graham, who represents a considerable upgrade in 3-point shooting – another way to punish defenses for throwing too many bodies at Williamson.

“The moves we made, I’m very excited about them,” Williamson said. “We got new pieces to give us new ways to attack.”

Two veteran starters from last season – guard Eric Bledsoe and center Steven Adams – lasted only one season with the club before Griffin dealt them away as part of the Valanciunas trade. The Pelicans also decided against committing major money to restricted free agent Lonzo Ball, instead sending him to Chicago in a sign and trade.

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