The more Zion, the merrier

“It’s very tough, to be honest, because as soon as I start to break that sweat, I look over and that horn’s for me and I have to come out of the game. Also, when I do catch the flow of the game, like I said, that horn goes off, and it’s for me.

I’m a competitor, and I want to stay on the court, so when I’m coming out of the game, my competitive side of me is telling me, ‘man, I just want to stay in,’ so I guess that does effect the fun a little bit, but not too much.”

Zion Williamson, media availability, August 2 (US time)

Caution has been the deciding factor when it comes to player availability these past few NBA seasons. On the risk-reward spectrum, it’s been accepted that it’s far better to lose a few games by holding out a star player, or by subjecting him to a minutes restriction, than to risk injury, and see him miss long stretches of time, or worse, fail to reach his potential.

It’s a bitter pill for all to swallow. Fans want to see their best guys on the court. The coaching staff and front office know they need their star out there to win games and keep their jobs. Even players have begrudgingly accepted that team doctors know better, and that the days of playing on lingering injuries are long gone, for fear of aggravating them into something career-threatening.

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For the first two games of the NBA restart in Orlando, the New Orleans Pelicans kept Zion Williamson on a strict 15-minute restriction (the team wanted him to round into shape after voluntarily leaving the bubble due to a family matter, then being unable to rejoin the team due to quarantine). The 2019 No. 1 overall pick would play the first couple of minutes of a quarter, before getting subbed out, relegated to riding the bench while his team tries to make up ground in the hunt for the eighth Western Conference seed.

Both those games were Pelicans losses: the first, a 106-104 squeaker to the Utah Jazz, in the very first match of this NBA reset, a game some argue the Pellies could have won had they just played Zion more. The second was a 126-103 trouncing by the LA Clippers, so lopsided that, to Zion’s recollection, the last time he experienced something like that was back in the fifth grade.

In New Orleans’ third game of the reset though, the leash the medical staff gave Zion was much longer. In a must-win game against the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that entered the bubble #8 in the West, Williamson played 25 minutes and got to close this one out. The result? A 109-99 triumph that cut the gap between the two teams to 2.5 games.

It should be pointed out that this was what people expected. Prior to the start of the reset games, most analysts figured the Pelicans would lose their first two assignments, against West squads already a lock to make the postseason. It was how they would look against the remaining six, this Memphis match-up, two against the Sacramento Kings, the Washington Wizards, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Orlando Magic, that would dictate their postseason fate.

On the other hand: Zion doing Zion things!

Williamson logged 10:08 in the fourth, producing nine points, a rebound, and three assists. His effort, along with that of Brandon Ingram, who had a team-high 10 points in that period, helped hold off a Grizzlies comeback attempt, en route to New Orleans’ first bubble triumph.

Sometimes, basketball is that simple.

The Pelicans started the 2019-20 season with 17 wins and 27 losses, a stretch that included a nasty 13-game losing streak. That was sans Zion, who was healing a torn meniscus, suffered during the preseason. Though the team lost his NBA debut, 117-121 to the Spurs, they proceeded to go 11-9 with him in the lineup, prior to the COVID-19 stoppage.

Conspiracy theories aside, because Zion is so devastatingly good on the court, because his return raises the Pelicans’ ceiling so high, they can take advantage of the rule that the Association made, where if the ninth seed finishes within four games of the eighth team, they’ll have a play-in for that postseason berth.

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Now, to be fair, Zion is not the cure for cancer. His defense is still a work in progress, as he still has to learn where he needs to be on that side of the court. However, it’s not as if the Pelicans have better options. Veteran Derrick Favors is also so-so defensively. Fellow rookie Jaxson Hayes has plenty of bounce and a willingness to go after every shot, but in a young JaVale McGee-esque way that cannier teams can exploit. You might as well have Williamson in there then, because the team is just so damn good (+5.2 Offensive Rating when he’s on the court, per BBallRef) when it’s their turn to put the ball into the hoop.

(The one knock on his offensive game is how he keeps losing shoes while driving. Fix that Nike.)

The Pelicans have a damn good shot at making it into the Playoffs this season, especially in the wake of the season-ending injury to Grizzlies big Jaren Jackson Jr. And their odds of making it in get exponentially bigger the more Zion plays. They’ve been playing it safe with his minutes to get to this point. It’s now time to see just how far he can take them.