The Tantalizing Potential of Kristaps Porzingis
A cynic might reasonably assert that Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t proven anything yet. He’s played relatively limited minutes in just nine games in his brief NBA career. He’s yet to score more than 16 points in any one contest. His team, the New York Knicks, sit one game below .500 at 4-5.
Yet, such skeptics might be missing the point.
Yes, many Knicks fans are overly optimistic about the promise of Porzingis. But it could also be argued that many loyal Knicks fans have earned the right to get exceedingly, even irrationally, excited.
Context is important here.
Being a Knicks fan has been tough and often exhausting. Even in the “glory days” of the 1990s, the regular seasons were extremely enjoyable and entertaining, but playoff runs ultimately ended in heartache. Still, looking back, Knicks fans didn’t know how good they had it. For younger supporters of the team, being a fan of this franchise has been brutal. Teenage fans have seen basically nothing but drama and dysfunction. Oh, and losses. Plenty of losses…
Over the last 15 seasons, the Knicks have won a grand total of seven postseason games. They have lost 672 regular season games during this same stretch. Bill Clinton was President of the United States the last time the Knicks advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
Still, it isn’t simply the sheer number of numbing defeats. The Knicks often found new and inventive ways to demoralize the fan base. The poor choices on draft day, moronic trades and inexplicable front office hires are simply too numerous to list. Even short-lived successes that generated genuine excitement would inevitably be followed by a crashing return to defeats and despair. The perpetual cloud of gloom that has hung over the franchise for nearly two decades has tended to deflate even the most buoyant and supportive spirits.
The coup de grace came last season. New Yorkers actually had a reason to welcome losses, but the Knicks somehow even managed to mess that up. Heading into the final week of the 2014-15 campaign, New York was in prime position to finish with the worst record in the NBA, which would have guaranteed them a top-three pick and the best odds of winning the lottery (to secure the services of stud prospect Karl-Anthony Towns). Alas, the Knicks won their final two road games of the season (the only time all season they won back-to-back road contests), which allowed the Minnesota Timberwolves to back into the coveted No. 1 spot.
At the lottery drawing held in New York City the following month, only one team had the misfortune of “moving down.” It was the Knicks, who fell to No. 4 overall.
The top three picks in the 2015 draft were essentially no-brainers. Towns, the consensus top prospect, would go first. D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor would follow, in some order.
Then the consensus ceased. Most believed it was at that point where the draft diverted from “sure-fire stars” to “promising prospects with question marks.” Different scouts and pundits predicted the Knicks would take any number of players available. Some suggested it would be in the Knicks’ best interest to move down and acquire assets.
When Commissioner Adam Silver announced “Kristaps Porzingis” as New York’s selection, many fans in the crowd booed. Others shrugged. To be fair, the vast majority of New Yorkers had never watched the kid play a single game. Most could only base their opinion on limited YouTube footage. Moreover, Knicks fans had been conditioned to expect the worst.
Back in 1999, as we know, the Knicks selected Fredrick Weis – one spot ahead of NYC’s own Ron Artest.
Ten years later, in 2009, GM Donnie Walsh and all of Knicks Nation desperately wanted sharpshooter Stephen Curry out of Davidson. It was the worst kept secret in the draft. The Knicks were sitting at No. 8 overall and Curry teasingly lasted through the first six picks, before the Golden State Warriors snatched him up at No. 7. The Knicks had to settle for Jordan Hill, who played a total of 24 games for New York before they dumped him in a cap-clearing trade. Curry, obviously, won a title and the MVP award for the Warriors last season.
Many Knicks fans, possibly suffering from post-traumatic draft-pick stress, were hesitant to embrace Porzingis. Also, rumors immediately began circulating that franchise cornerstone Carmelo Anthony was furious the Knicks had gambled on a 19-year-old foreigner, which didn’t help matters.
But here is where this story starts to turn…
In interviews on draft night and in the weeks and months after, Porzingis spoke with an air of confidence and answered questions competently with a remarkable grasp of the English language.
New Yorkers got their first up-close look at the tall, skinny youngster during the Las Vegas Summer League. Yes, he was raw, but he flashed some impressive skills. Many fans began to shift from initially doubtful, to uncertain, to intrigued.
During training camp, and then into the preseason, the buzz began in earnest. The coaching staff heaped praise on Porzingis. His teammates raved about him.
During limited minutes in the preseason contests, he played well. Just as importantly, he played hard. Despite his thin frame, he was unafraid to mix it up in the paint. He repeatedly asked fans not to hold the past sins of previous “soft Euros” against him. He was determined to shatter the stereotype he knew existed here in the States.
He splashed jumpers from all over the court. He rebounded in traffic. He handled the ball like a guard, despite measuring in at 7’3. He defended bigger, stronger pros down low, using his 7’6 wingspan to alter opponents’ shots.
Still, one of the most appealing aspects of the Porzingis experience is the kid’s composure on the court. He’s never in a rush. He moves quickly, but doesn’t hurry. He is shockingly confident. However, he doesn’t force shots. He is almost unselfish to a fault. It is clear he doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone right now.
He manages to walk that fine line between being remarkably self-assured, yet still modest and humble.
A 20 year-old celebrity who doesn’t have his head on straight could easily get swallowed up in this town. Many have, and many more will. Porzingis just seems to “get it.” When asked about his favorite part about moving to America and living in NYC, he explained it wasn’t the exciting nightlife in Manhattan, but rather the fact that he could use an open gym at his leisure to shoot around whenever he wanted to.
Knicks fans were beginning to buy in. He remains remarkably easy to embrace. He’s said and done all the right things since the day he was drafted.
Prior to the draft, he let it be known that it was his “dream” to be drafted by the Knicks. He wanted New York. He was ready for the challenge. New Yorkers wanted him to be good, so they could get behind the promise that exuded from his game. He looked good in Vegas and in preseason action, but how would he hold up once the real games began?
The Knicks played their season opener on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and cruised to an easy 25-point victory. Porzingis struggled from the floor (3-for-11), but still managed to pour in 16 points by getting to the line 12 times.
The excitement in New York was palpable.
In New York’s fourth game of the season, the Knicks hosted the San Antonio Spurs at MSG. Porzingis finished with his first career double-double, scoring 13 points and pulling down 14 rebounds. He also produced the first of what has been become his trademark highlight: an awe-inspiring put-back dunk, this time over LaMarcus Aldridge.
Porzingis was starting to go viral now. The bandwagon was gaining steam and supporters. Early expectations had been exceeded. Could he possibly keep this up?
Porzingis has posted double-doubles in four of the Knicks’ last six games. His per-36 minutes averages are incredibly impressive: 16.9 points, 13.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. As of Tuesday, he was one of just two players in the NBA leading his team in rebounds, steals and blocks (with Detroit’s Andre Drummond being the other).
Knicks fan are downright giddy, to the point where, in some circles, they are being ridiculed for being overly optimistic. “Porzingis hasn’t proven anything yet,” the critics claim.
The doubters aren’t necessarily wrong. But that’s not the point.
Those Knicks fans who have stuck by their team though thick and (mostly) thin these past 15 years have earned the right to be irrationally excited. In fact, they should be encouraged to go crazy over the first handful of Porzingis highlights. Who knows when they will be in this position again?
Of course, Porzingis does have flaws. He fouls too much. His shooting percentage is still south of 40 percent. But the extraordinary talent and immense potential is impossible to miss if you’ve watched the kid play at all. And it’s been a very, very long time since Knicks fans have had the opportunity to invest emotionally in one of their own young players with such a high upside.
Over the past two decades, many people have been introduced as saviors to resurrect this woebegone franchise. Owner James Dolan hired Isiah Thomas to much fanfare, who immediately traded the farm for Stephon Marbury. Zeke’s next big move was trading two unprotected first-round draft picks to Chicago for Eddy Curry. After that experiment crashed and burned, Donnie Walsh was brought in as GM to clean up the mess and was tasked with luring LeBron James to New York. That didn’t work, so the Knicks ended up handing $100 million to Amar’e Stoudemire, who boisterously proclaimed that the “Knicks are back.” But Stoudemire’s well-worn knees soon buckled under the weight of expectations. New York next traded half their organization to bring in Anthony. The early returns were promising, but New York has failed to even qualify for the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
It’s been even longer since Knicks supporters had a homegrown star to latch onto. New York has struck out on plenty of picks. They have also failed to develop and retain those promising players they did draft. Amazingly, the last player the Knicks drafted and subsequently signed to a multi-year contract after his original rookie deal expired was Charlie Ward, who was selected 24th overall in the 1994 draft.
Long story short, it’s been hard for Knicks fans to be hopeful.
The Knicks are once again part of the New York sports talk conversation. Many ardent fans have noticed that friends and brothers and uncles who hadn’t watched the Knicks in years have recently tuned in to catch a glimpse of this European dude that people are talking about. Porzingis is on the path to becoming ‘must-see TV.’
There is obviously no guarantee that Porzingis reaches his full potential and develops into a legit superstar in New York. He’s a long, long ways from even starting that discussion. He will have to hurdle countless road blocks before reaching those lofty heights. Maybe Porzingis gets hurt or flames out at some point soon or further down the road.
But the flip side of that coin remains a distinct possibility as well.
Maybe we are watching a truly great player take the necessary baby steps towards stardom?
For Knicks fans that have had so precious little to get truly energized about in recent years, why not go all in? It’s understandable that New Yorkers have been reflexively attempting to curb their enthusiasm. Still, those fans that have suffered through the torment of the 2000s and beyond deserve the anxious excitement of unknown and untapped potential. Anybody can appreciate and root for an established star; getting in on the ground floor is always more exciting. It requires taking a leap of faith.
Porzingis’ on-court production thus far is undeniably impressive. He is one of just 11 players in the last 30 years to tally at least four double-doubles of points and rebounds in his first nine career games (Patrick Ewing only had three). He is also the only player of those 11 to post four double-doubles while averaging fewer than 25 minutes per game. Kristaps is the first player in Knicks franchise history to grab 15 rebounds in a game before celebrating his 21st birthday. He is also the first player in NBA history with at least 100 points, 80 rebounds and five three-pointers in his first nine games.
And although the numbers are remarkable, it’s far more than just the statistics that have fans in all five boroughs so encouraged and enthused. It’s the sense that Porzingis is merely just scratching the surface.
After beating the L.A. Lakers last Sunday, Porzingis sat at his locker and coolly answered questions from the gathered media. At one point, I asked him if he, like the rest of us, was surprised at just how well he’d played this season. He responded with a one-word answer: “No.” He wasn’t bragging; he was simply relaying his belief in himself.
It’s justifiably difficult for dubious, downtrodden Knicks fans to believe in Porzingis as strongly as he does in himself, but fortunately for those fans, they hopefully have the rest of his bright career to be persuaded.
For anyone on the fence, feel free to jump on the bandwagon. There’s still room, but seats are filling up fast.
The X-Factors: Brooklyn
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.
The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.
While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.
Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.
But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play? Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.
And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.
But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?
Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.
If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.
Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.
So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.
Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.
So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so, what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.
The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone. So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.
But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.
This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.
One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.
And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.
The X-Factors: Portland
Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by looking at potential game-changers for the Portland Trail Blazers when the NBA returns.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
That’s probably an appropriate way to characterize the steam that’s been picking up over the last week regarding the eventual return of the NBA. What the plan exactly will be is yet to be determined, but there are potential scenarios surfacing left and right. And with the NHL officially having a resumption blueprint set in stone, we’re probably not too far away from learning The Association’s fate.
In an effort to prepare ourselves for that day, Basketball Insiders has begun an x-factor series for each team around the current playoff picture. Basically, “if this happens…” or “what if this player is healthy?” type of scenarios are what we’re looking at. Ben Nadeau kicked us off Tuesday with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Today, we’re going to look at the Portland Trail Blazers, who are in a similar situation out in the Western Conference.
Scratching and clawing for that final seed to make the postseason for the seventh straight season, the Blazers have work to do at 29-37. They’re going to need help in the standings race with several other squads surrounding them chasing after the same thing. Along with the Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, Portland is 3.5 games back of the West’s eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Even the San Antonio Spurs are hanging by a thread with their playoff streak in jeopardy with a four-game hole in the standings.
We can technically call this our first dependent situation. There is going to be a ton of schedule watching around these five teams. It’s all contingent on the NBA’s decision about how to go about a return — a 72-game benchmark, a play-in tournament, straight to the postseason, etc. Who’s going to have an easier schedule? Who’s going to have more games to play and increase their chances?
For example, the Blazers could have six games left to play to make up that gap on the Grizzlies, a team that was next up on their list in a pivotal head-to-head scenario. The Spurs, however, would have nine games to try and right the ship — by far the highest amount of contests in comparison to the four others they’re fighting against. None of this is concrete because we don’t know what solution the league is going to agree upon; that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come to mind as a hypothetical.
Then, there’s that Damian Lillard guy. You know, the dude that is Portland’s franchise. The man that went on a mid-January to early February eight-game run where he absurdly averaged over 45 points, 9.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds, while nailing 53 percent of both his field goals and three-balls. He averaged 40 minutes in this stretch, quite literally putting the team on his back to keep pace with the surging Grizzlies.
Lillard’s publicly come out and said flat-out that if the league elects to go with the benchmark idea, he wouldn’t participate. He’d gladly support his teammates and join them, just not on the court for games. Speaking with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the All-Star point guard expressed his desire for a tournament-style setup where there are playoff implications on the line. Suiting up to satisfy certain criteria with no incentive isn’t his preferred method of return. He wants to compete and, considering the effect of rustiness and other unknowns that could play a factor in these hypothetical matchups, Lillard would love for Portland to be the group that knocks others out unexpectedly.
Let’s not forget that the Blazers could have two starting-caliber players back that would’ve made their return from injury at some point this past March, either. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have their own specific capabilities that can dramatically improve what the team’s been missing since the beginning of the year.
Nurkic is an outstanding interior presence that brings physicality and finishing ability, as well as a big body to secure rebounds and dare opponents to come into the paint. This is no knock on Hassan Whiteside, who has arguably had the best season of his career as a blocking and boarding machine. It’s more about the lack of depth behind him, which is where Nurkic can step right in without Portland losing its reliability at the five. It’s been a revolving door at backup center for the Blazers, which has allowed the opposition to attack at will and get easy buckets. Nurkic’s return will shut that right off, as well as give the second unit a reliable scoring option.
Collins, his frontcourt partner, was supposed to have a breakout campaign in store for the league. Instead, the athletic third-year big man suffered a dislocated left shoulder just three games into the season. While it has sidelined him since then, he was targeting March as a return target. Obviously, with the league suspending operations, that didn’t happen as planned. But with the calendar turning to June in less than a week, and with his optimism shining through his rehab, it’s probably OK to assume Collins is close to being in the clear for a comeback.
Collins brings things to the table that neither Nurkic nor Whiteside does — an ability to stretch the floor being the most obvious skill that stands out. He can knock down triples at a decent rate and, more importantly, create space for Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate. The 6-foot-11 power forward has quicker foot speed than the other bigs Portland has, too.
Though the Blazers should be plenty excited about Nurkic and Collins’ impending return, they also have to be realistic about how much those two will play. We already mentioned Collins’ shoulder dislocation, but Nurkic hasn’t been on the floor since Mar. 25 of last year. Terry Stotts and his coaching staff will have to pay close attention to each of their minutes. How that whole situation is handled will be crucial to ensure there’s no long-term damage done for any party.
Just like the rest of their competition, the Blazers will have to also monitor how their older veterans handle ramping things back up again. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are both in their mid-30s and have taken on a heavy minute load. They are starters who average over 30 minutes per game that just abruptly stopped playing for months. It isn’t going to be easy on anybody, but the younger players can probably recover and restart easier than those seasoned vets.
Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are likely to come out of this hiatus with the most energy out of anybody simply because they’re the youngest guys on the team. We all know how hungry the dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum is going to be. It’s exciting to think about.
All we can do now is wait to find out what the next steps are toward a restart.
Luckily for us, that news might not be too far away.
The X-Factors: New Orleans
Ben Nadeau kicks off a new Basketball Insiders series by examining potential game-changers for when the NBA resumes play.
Basketball is back, baby.
Well, sorta. OK, actually, not really. But they’re talking about it. Finally.
Beyond that, they’re apparently making true, meaningful progress. And although the NBA is circling through potential scenarios — bubble games, re-seeding, ignoring conferences, etc. — there’s a very real chance that this shindig gets underway by mid-July.
To celebrate the re-arrival of actual talk and analysis, Basketball Insiders is kicking off its newest series — this time, one that focuses on a real-life hypothetical. The idea of an x-factor is inherently goofy, typically leading to sentences like: “Well, if Player Z hits 43 percent of his three-pointers, they’ll be tough to beat.” And, yeah, duh.
Given the sport-wide break, there are some perfectly valid questions to be asked. For example, with an extra two months off, where does Victor Oladipo’s health stand? If he’s fully healthy, the Indiana Pacers are going to be a whirlwind of a problem for their higher-seeded first-round matchup. Could the return of Jonathan Isaac to the Orlando Magic ensure their postseason place? And, finally, Kevin Durant – a decision that looms large over every other potential proceeding.
But that’s not why we’ve gathered at this particular URL right now – that would be to discuss the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that currently finds itself 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Naturally, any chance for success depends on the NBA ratifying a plan that behooves the Pelicans’ hopes. Whether that’s a return to the regular season or a totally-invented play-in series, it doesn’t matter as New Orleans needs some help outside of their own good fortunes.
Should they get the opportunity to control their own fate, there’d be plenty to research and anoint as a Holier Than Thou X-Factor. We could talk about J.J. Redick’s 45.2 percent mark from three-point range or how his 110 postseason games are 28 more than the rest of the roster combined.
Maybe there’d be a paragraph or two on Brandon Ingram’s steady ascent to stardom. Ingram’s post-Los Angeles quest to become a sure-fire No. 1 option has been a compelling narrative, but can he do it when the games matter most? Lonzo Ball, the playmaking point guard, knocked down 21 of his 36 attempts from deep over the final four Pelicans games — if that were a permanent level of consistency for the pass-first general, then that would change everything, too.
And Jrue Holiday, the remaining cornerstone following the departure of Anthony Davis, would get his first chance to anoint himself as a hero in the football-heavy city. Surely, if the Pelicans are to sneak into the altered postseason — and, dare we say it, make some noise — those would be important conditions to quantify.
Still, for all the positives, negatives and worthy storylines out there for New Orleans, not a single one matters as much as Zion Williamson does.
Since the 19-year-old phenom debuted on Jan. 22, the Pelicans went 11-9. It’s not a spectacular showing, but one dragged down by losses to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers twice. Generally speaking, however, Williamson wasted no time acclimating to the NBA and the numbers speak for themselves: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting.
The highlights include the 35 points he hung on the Lakers and six other occasions of 25 or more in just 19 games. Moreover, Williamson has only scored under 20 points on three occasions and shot worse than 50 percent twice — once 8-for-18 (44) in the other showing versus Los Angeles and a tough 5-for-19 effort (26.3) against the league-leading Bucks. Of course, if they hobbled into the postseason, they’d have to play those very same Lakers over and over again.
Alas, the so-called chosen one will have his fair share of questions when the season resumes. Remember that 4-for-4 explosion against the San Antonio Spurs in his career debut? Well, he’s just 2-for-9 otherwise, often going entire games without even hoisting from long range. Williamson wasn’t supposed to enter professional basketball as a three-point marksman, but that epic – and believe us, we don’t use that word lightly – introduction might have skewed the outlook.
At Duke, Williamson went just 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) from deep and it’ll be a weak link that follows him – just as it does Ben Simmons – for the time being. Free throws weren’t expected to be a major, glaring issue either as he hit on 64 percent in college and, well, he’s right around the same mark currently. If you ignore 1-for-6 and 3-for-8 showings during a couple of double-digit victories versus the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, that number looks even better too.
But enough about the few cons – of which Williamson has certainly made a focus during his quarantine workouts – what’s the ceiling? And how much should we be pulling for a postseason debut here? In a crazy campaign like this, the added bonus of Williamson-made magic might be a thread worth pulling for – even at the rejection of a Ja Morant-led foray instead.
Needless to say, if the resumed regular scenario arrives and the Pelicans have just five or so attempts to make up a 3.5 game deficit in the standings, Williamson probably wouldn’t play at all. It’s also certainly possible that the rookie was just shaking off the rust before — just ask the aforementioned Oladipo. After taking an entire year to recover from a brutal ruptured tendon, the former All-Star only averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting, all would-be career-lows.
Bet your bottom dollar, however, that with an extra 60 days of training at full speed under his belt, Oladipo will be closer to 100 percent than ever – a much-needed boost to an already well-rounded Pacers side. Could a trained-up Williamson provide the same type of edge? Upon his debut, one of the few worries that lingered – aside from re-injury – was about his perceived stamina and fatigue. Getting dropped into high-intensity workouts against adults twice your age is no joke, but try it after three months of rehab following a preseason meniscus tear.
With that context, the fact that Williams averaged 20-plus points on nearly 30 minutes per game is a superhero-level accomplishment.
At 37.2 percent, the Pelicans are the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting franchise – so even if Williamson doesn’t come back ready to unleash from deep, his team will be. On top of that, New Orleans’ 116.2 points per game are tied for fourth-best, too. Between Williamson, Holiday, Ball, Ingram and Redick, scoring appears to be the least of their issues headed into a restarted season.
But the defensive rating of 111.6 is a cause for concern, the second-worst standing of any team still within arm’s reach of the postseason (Portland, 113.6). Williamson has posted an encouraging mark of 103.1 on that end through 19 games, which also happens to be the highest mark of anybody employed by New Orleans right now.
In fact, Williamson’s multi-position defense and overall athleticism have already left quite the footprint. Since his debut in January, the Pelicans have posted a defensive rating of 109.2 – good enough for the No. 8 spot across the entire league. The Williamson Effect is here to stay and it’ll only improve as the roster meshes and the rookie acclimates even further – that seems to be a foregone conclusion.
If you thought Williamson was impressive coming off a serious injury with no stamina, his elevated play – whether in assumed individual efficiencies or overall team impact – could push the Pelicans into new territory. Elsewhere, there are aspects of New Orleans that deserve attention but none are as postseason-transforming as the second return of Williamson – let us just hope that the NBA provides a stage for the show.