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How Will Zion Williamson’s Return Impact New Orleans’ Playoff Hopes?

It is finally Zion Day in the Association.

The immensely-hyped No. 1 pick out of Duke is making his regular-season debut for New Orleans after being inactive for 13 weeks, joining a Pelicans team firmly in the midst of a postseason chase. New Orleans has soldiered through a rough start to the season without Williamson (and Derrick Favors for an extended stretch) to climb within 3.5 games of the final playoff spot. The Pelicans began the year 6-9 before losing 13 games in a row. They’ve since won 11 of 16, including a raucous blowout over the Memphis Grizzlies, the current occupants of the 8-seed, on Martin Luther King Day.

It’s an exciting time for the Pels, which suddenly face one simple question: How does Zion’s return affect a team that is just now hitting its stride?

From a talent perspective, this is a no-brainer. Williamson is the most highly-touted college prospect since Anthony Davis. Having a player with that skill level can only improve the product the Pelicans put on the court. In his limited preseason action, Williamson was an offensive monster, averaging 23.3 points in just 27.2 minutes per game while shooting 71.4 percent from the field. He enjoyed that efficiency despite being unable hit jumpers and making less than 70 percent of his free throws.

Williamson had an unparalleled ability at the collegiate level to get into the lane at will and finish over whichever defenders had the misfortune of being stationed in front of him. That strength and explosiveness stood out again in the preseason, and even when he missed the occasional shot, he used his prodigious second jump to get a putback attempt.

Offense hasn’t been a problem from the Pelicans during their current surge. For the season, they’ve had an above-average offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass, and that figure has risen to 117.4 over the past two weeks, better than the league-leading Dallas Mavericks. The way New Orleans has done that is by going small, putting Brandon Ingram at the four and letting him work with a spaced floor. To Ingram’s credit, he has thrived with the increased scoring burden.

Ingram has been decisive getting to the basket with an open lane, and he’s kept the threat of his drive alive with fantastic spot-up accuracy. The prospect who couldn’t shoot in Los Angeles is now draining 47.7 percent of his field goal attempts, including 39.9 percent of his three-pointers. He’s been at his best at power forward, when the Pelicans can surround him with three shooters at the perimeter spots, and potentially four if Nicolo Melli is at center.

Williamson changes that dynamic. Favors is the starting center and is crucial to maintaining New Orleans’ defensive integrity. Jaxson Hayes has also earned minutes at that spot with his vertical spacing. That presumably means Williamson will displace Ingram at power forward and push him over to the three. Ingram’s length makes him a tough cover for most traditional small forwards, but his speed becomes less of an advantage at that position. It will also be easier for opposing defenses to pack the paint with two non-shooters on the floor, potentially compromising Ingram’s efficiency.

Nevertheless, despite questions that need to be answered about the fit between Ingram and Williamson, every other Pelican stands to benefit greatly from the rookie’s presence. Lonzo Ball immediately jumps out as a perfect complement to Williamson; Ball loves to play at a high pace with his hit-aheads and streaking passes, and even though he hasn’t played a competitive NBA game yet, Williamson is already among the league’s most dangerous lob threats.

Williamson is also an ideal pick-and-roll finisher for Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick — just think about the impossible choice defenses will have to make when Redick comes flying off of a Williamson screen. That two-man game is an action that Redick perfected with Joel Embiid in Philadelphia and has begun to develop with Hayes this season.

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Then there’s the issue of the New Orleans’ depth in the frontcourt. Ingram playing power forward has unlocked some of his offensive potential, but that decision was made in part because the Pelicans don’t really have many bodies at that position. Favors and Jahlil Okafor have had recurring lower body injuries, and Hayes is a little too foul-prone to rely on for extended minutes, which makes sense, as he’s a 19-year-old rookie still getting used to life in the league.

If Williamson can slot in as a backup center, then he provides infinitely more positional utility while helping New Orleans maintain its floor spacing. The beauty of the Pelicans roster is that essentially every non-big is a shooter (depending on how you feel about Ball’s play of late), so Williamson will have more room to work with than he ever did at Duke, where he was the most efficient college player this past decade.

How Williamson fits in defensively is perhaps a more interesting question, though one that is trickier to answer. He doesn’t theoretically have the size of an NBA center, though other smaller bigs around the league (Montrezl Harrell immediately comes to mind) have made it work. Rookies generally take some time to pick up on the nuances of defensive schemes, and Williamson’s conditioning can’t be at its best after such a long layoff.

A smart opposing offense could repeatedly target Williamson and make him defend out on the perimeter to test his lateral mobility, but then again, we’ve seen how much ground Williamson can cover on a closeout. Plus during his one year year at Duke, Williamson was 32nd nationally in steal percentage and 134th nationally in block percentage, per KenPom, showing his ability to help his team by making things happen on that end of the floor.

New Orleans was a trendy preseason pick to make the playoffs in no small part because of the impact Williamson was projected to have, even in his first year. That the Pelicans have managed to stay afloat in his absence is a testament to the depth of their talent, but make no mistake: this will be Williamson’s team soon enough. The Pelicans will start to learn just how close they are to that future tonight.

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