Zion Williamson, Pelicans Appear Poised For Big Rise In The West

There’s reason for genuine optimism in the bayou.

The New Orleans Pelicans are not only getting healthier, they’re playing their best basketball of the season, with Zion Williamson looking more and more akin to the dominant player seen in prior years. The team could soon be on the rise up the standings as the schedule appears favorable for a real climb.

Breaking down Williamson’s season numbers to date into segments, the upward trend is easily discernible. The production witnessed in his most recent 5-game split compares superbly with last season’s output.

First 5 games (10/25-11/04)
Next 5 games (11/05-11/17)
Last 5 games (11/18-11/30)
2022-23 season26.
via NBA.com/Stats

The improvements in assist-to-turnover ratio, steals and free throw percentage are notable. To the eye, he’s looked more comfortable recently than at any point earlier in the season. Stronger decision-making, more efficient shooting from all parts of the floor and greater defensive impact for a player that already exhibited plenty of glimpses of dominant play feels like a game-changer for a group that is also experiencing Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas and Herb Jones playing at a high level.

That’s certainly the takeaway when examining lineup data.

Several New Orleans four-man lineups sit among the best combinations in the league since the Pelicans’ 131-110 victory over the Dallas Mavericks.

Lopez-Lillard-Middleton-Beasley (MIL)791133.2102.6+30.62.1962.6%67.4%
Randle-Hart-Brunson-Robinson (NYK)8106130.4100.5+29.91.9461.0%62.8%
Valanciunas-Ingram-Williamson-Daniels (NOP)687138.2108.9+29.35.1356.1%68.9%
Valanciunas-Ingram-Williamson-Jones (NOP)7104135.5108.3+27.23.3657.3%72.0%
Lopez-Lillard-Middleton-Antetokounmpo (MIL)682133.3108.1+25.22.5262.9%66.2%
Via NBA.com/Stats

The recent strong play of the starters has translated in the team’s statistical data as well. The ball and player movement has been fantastic — no team has averaged more assists per game than the Pelicans since their big win over the Mavericks, rebounding is no longer a glaring issue, the team is pounding the paint and they’ve been opportunistic, playing with great pace and taking advantage of their athleticism in the open court.

Nov. 14 – Nov. 30118.5 (9)109.3 (3)+9.2 (2)68.1% (4)51.8% (6)25.8 (6)57.6 (4)17.1 (1)20.2 (3)
via NBA.com/Stats

The Pelicans’ defense deserves a lot of credit for spurring the offense. The team is still keeping opponents at bay from the perimeter overall, but now they’ve made significant inroads in stifling the corner 3. Additionally, they’re keeping the opposition out of the lane and limiting their second chances and opportunities off of own mistakes.

Opp PTS/GSTLOpp 3FG%Opp corner 3PT%Opp Restricted Area AttemptsOpp PTS off TOVOpp 2nd Chance PTSOpp PTS in Paint
Oct. 25 – Nov. 13116.2 (22)6.6 (25)32.2% (3)39.8% (18)27.2 (18)19.6 (27)16.6 (25)52.6 (23)
Nov. 14 – Nov. 30109.4 (8)9.9 (1)33.0% (2)31.6% (3)20.1 (4)13.8 (4)13.9 (14)44.2 (8)
via NBA.com/Stats

Adding Naji Marshall and Jose Alvarado to the mix has paid dividends, along with Dyson Daniels, Jordan Hawkins and Cody Zeller often seen contributing positively since the start of the season, but the Pelicans are probable to maintain their strong level of play with the returns of several vital core members.

CJ McCollum returned from a 12-game absence due to a small pneumothorax in his right lung, scoring 20 points in Wednesday’s 124-114 victory against the Philadelphia 76ers. He didn’t appear to have skipped a beat, knocking down three 3-pointers and dropping five dimes against two turnovers.

Neither did the New Orleans starting lineup when incorporating him back into the fold.

The typical starting lineup (McCollum-Jones-Ingram-Williamson-Valanciunas) posted a whopping 143.2 offensive rating, a 102.9 defensive rating and a +40.4 net rating against Philly.

Now, Trey Murphy is scheduled to make his first appearance of the season against the San Antonio Spurs this Friday.

Murphy is the Pelicans’ biggest 3-point threat, but he can also contribute elsewhere with his size and athleticism. His length should add to the team’s steal and block numbers as well as help clean the glass. His scoring punch will be a major boost to a bench unit that has sometimes gone cold.

However, everyone is anticipating on how he’ll help space the floor in combination with McCollum or Hawkins for Ingram and Williamson.

While the Pelicans will finally be able to flaunt their biggest weapons together for the first time this season, they also have an enviable path to elevate their position in the standings. Excluding the In-Season Tournament game in Sacramento next Monday and its fallout, the Pelicans are set to face five of the weakest NBA opponents through the first quarter of the season six times within the next three weeks: Spurs (twice), Bulls, Wizards, Hornets and Grizzlies.

The Pelicans should not be expected to resemble a finished product yet. As evidenced by the two losses in Utah, they must learn to close games better — McCollum referenced the team could have four fewer L’s in the loss column if six possessions had gone differently. It might also take the coaching staff some time to assimilate all the talent and make the pieces work seamlessly together.

Perfection, however, shouldn’t be required.

Zion Williamson is effervescing MVP vibes again, especially coming off his best performance of the season against the 76ers. Brandon Ingram has found his stroke from the 3-point line and is getting to the rim and free throw line with greater regularity. Both stars have been exhibiting greater buy-in defensively. And surrounding the duo, the Pelicans have a number of versatile defenders with length and speed, and now they’re on the verge of hosting a stable of shooters.

Come Christmas, the Pelicans could be considered a legitimate force in the Western Conference. All the means to attract national attention soon are in place. Can this group take full advantage?

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One thought on “Zion Williamson, Pelicans Appear Poised For Big Rise In The West

  1. If the Pels lose to the Bulls tonight (it is the end of the third quarter), you might want to edit this article. Unless and until BI and Zion decide they want to be great, this team will be a 40 to 45 win team.

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