If Wednesday night against the Raptors was any indication, Zion Williamson is back, and that’s a scary sight for the rest of the Western Conference.
The Pelicans were a popular sleeper pick for a breakout year entering the 2022-23 season. The return of Williamson — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and arguably the most-hyped prospect since LeBron James at the time — played a major role in those wishful projections.
While it was unclear how impactful Williamson would be right away after missing the entire 2021-22 season due to a foot injury, New Orleans did enough without its superstar to prove it was a team worth keeping on your radar as the new season approached.
Despite being under .500 at the 2022 trade deadline, the Pelicans took a big swing to acquire prolific scoring guard CJ McCollum and versatile forward Larry Nance Jr., adding two pieces to a budding roster perfectly constructed for its franchise cornerstone.
Adding McCollum and Nance to a group that included All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, bruising big man Jonas Valanciunas and rising young prospects like Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III, Jose Alvarado and Naji Marshall gave the Pelicans a direction for the future. But it also (perhaps accidentally) put together a feisty and scrappy team ready to make a push to the playoffs immediately.
New Orleans closed the season 14-14 and snuck into the Play-In Tournament, where it would go on to defeat the Spurs and Clippers to qualify for the actual playoffs. There, the Pelicans really cemented their potential as the best young core in the NBA, forcing a 64-win Suns team to six games before being eliminated in the first round.
Now, with Williamson back in action and looking healthy, New Orleans is emerging as a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.
How a healthy Zion Williamson can elevate Pelicans to contender status
Williamson has appeared in 16 games this season, and the All-Star hasn’t needed much time to get acclimated despite being sidelined for over a year.
He has missed five games so far — two with hip soreness after taking a hard fall on his backside and three with right foot soreness, the same foot that caused him to miss all of last season — but aside from those precautious absences, Williamson has looked healthy whenever he’s on the floor.
The Duke product is averaging 23.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, a career-high 4.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game. While his 59.2 field goal percentage is a slight regression from his historic sophomore season that saw him average 27.0 points on 61.1 percent shooting, he is still dominating in the paint.
According to NBA.com, Williamson’s 17.8 points per game in the paint are second-most in the NBA behind only the king of paint points, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
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Williamson is in the best shape of his career, he’s looking as explosive as ever and his quick-twitch leaping ability hasn’t gone anywhere despite his foot injury. His most recent game, going for 33 points (12-15 FG), 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks against the Raptors, was the biggest indication that Williamson is feeling like his usual self.
They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, and this still-shot of Williamson scoring at the rim with the entire Raptors defense in the frame just shows how unstoppable the 6-foot-6, 284-pound forward is when he’s on the attack:
He also threw down a gravity-defying dunk that is worthy of an old ESPN “Sports Science” segment.
How does someone as big as Williamson hang in the air long enough to double-clutch and finish with a slam?
As previously mentioned, Williamson is averaging a career-high in assists, and that is a vital skill set to New Orleans’ success given how much attention he draws from opposing defenses.
Back in 2021, I wrote about Williamson’s growth as a playmaker when former head coach Stan Van Gundy had deployed “Point Zion.” We saw some flashes of that in the win over Toronto, too.
To be able to dribble out of the trap, keep his head up, see the defense collapse and deliver a crisp bounce pass to Valanciunas lurking behind the backline of the Raptors’ zone is pretty impressive for the 22-year-old.
Zion Williamson’s first 100 games played
It’s easy to forget how dominant Williamson has been when he’s healthy because we just went over a year without seeing him play. As they say — out of sight, out of mind.
But with Williamson back in action — and just recently hitting the 100 total games played mark in his career — we’re quickly reminded why this young star was labeled a generational prospect when he was coming into the league.
When asked about finally hitting the century mark for games played, Williamson got retrospective about his career to this point.
“It’s been a long journey,” Williamson said, according to ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. “Would I have liked the journey to have gone like that? Absolutely not. I wish I could have played every game.
“But at the end of the day, I’m still grateful that I went through that. Because it helped me realize a lot mentally, spiritually and just growing as a man.
“So for me to finally hit a hundred games … Think about it, I’m on three coaches. This is the first year where the locker room has looked somewhat the same players-wise. The thing I can take away from that is it’s just good to kind of have just steady people around me now.”
Williamson has placed himself among elite company through his first 100 games, joining a list of Hall of Famers in the history books with some of his feats.
To name a couple:
- Williamson averaged 25.2 points on 60.2 percent shooting from the field, something that only George Mikan and Walt Bellamy did in their first 100 games.
- Williamson scored 2,524 points, the 12th player in NBA history to reach the 2,500 mark in 100 games and the most recent to do so since Michael Jordan. Williamson also had at least 20 points in 83 of his first 100 games, the most of any player since Jordan (85).
With his first 100 games behind him, Williamson is poised to fill the role of a franchise player as the Pelicans look to make a deep playoff run in the Western Conference as soon as this season.