The 2019-20 NBA season was supposed to be winding down. We were supposed to be only a week or so away from the start of the 2020 NBA Playoffs. Instead, we’re self-quarantining with the only basketball-related content to look forward to being ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary, which follows the late ’90s Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls.
To fill the void created by the COVID-19 shutdown, Basketball Insiders is busy churning out new content. Our latest endeavor involved our rankings of the best players at each position – and this writer drew the short straw. So let’s pick out the very best power forwards in the game today.
It’s important to note that due to the rise of small-ball and the ever-increasing value of the three-point shot, the power forward position has changed more than any other. Gone are the days of bully ball and the bruising power forward. But what remains is far more aesthetically pleasing – a more skilled and versatile breed of players who defends guards in pick-and-rolls, handles the ball and shoots three-pointers. We’re not saying power forwards are better now than ever before, but it’s hard to picture power forwards of the past defending the elite stretch fours of today.
But given the rise of positionless basketball, it’s more difficult than ever to identify power forwards – some look like wings and others are built like centers. So we simply went with the distinctions made by teams. Further, as is usually the case in league-wide rankings, we made our decisions based partially on statistics, and partially on the eye-test.
Needless to say, there are lots of great power forwards currently on NBA rosters who won’t appear in the list below. Injuries and opportunities played a major role, too. Therefore, we aren’t claiming these are the eight best power forwards alive; but instead, that the following is a list of the eight best power forwards in the 2019-20 season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Antetokounmpo is the obvious first choice. In fact, the only aspect up for debate is if he can really qualify as a power forward. Remember, the Bucks used him as their starting point guard in 2016-17. But since the Bucks presently list him as one, we’ll call him the best power forward of 2019-20.
The defending NBA MVP was in the middle of another MVP-caliber season. He averaged 29.6 points per game in 2019-20 with a league-leading 31.6 PER. He’s still just 25 years old and is just beginning to learn to shoot the three-ball –30.6% on 4.8 three-point attempts per game, up from 25.6% on 2.8 attempts last year.
Antetokounmpo’s drive to win sets him apart from the players listed below. Yes, he’s versatile. Yes, he attacks the basket like few before him. But the improvements he’s made each year weren’t predestined. He put in the work. And he did so because he wants to win that badly.
Antetokounmpo built himself into one of the very best players in the world, and it’s not really open for debate.
Statistics – 9.5 out of 10
Net effect – 9.5 out of 10
Overall score – 9.5 out of 10
Anthony Davis, Las Angeles Lakers
Like many great power forwards before him, Davis finds himself classified as a center more often than he’d like – but we really don’t care how he self-identifies. Davis is an exceptionally versatile player who can defend the rim (2.4 blocks per game), shoot the three-ball (33.5% on 3.5 attempts per game), swallow up rebounds (9.4 per game) and do pretty much anything else you’d like him to do.
His past is impressive – Davis is a three-time All-NBA and three-time All-Defensive player – but the 27-year-old was showing no signs of letting up. He took home two player-of-the-week awards in 2019-20, and he would have been a top-two MVP candidate had it not been for his teammate, LeBron James. Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that we’ll see exactly how far Davis and James could lead the Lakers.
Passing Antetokounmpo as the league’s best power forward is unlikely, especially for someone who isn’t even their team’s best player – but Davis is the ying to Antetokounmpo’s yang. Statistically, it won’t appear close. But in a head-to-head match-up, Antetokounmpo will have his work cut out for him (assuming he’s tasked with defending Davis).
Statistics – 8.5 out of 10
Net effect – 8.5 out of 10
Overall score – 8.5 out of 10
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Siakam’s coming out party was last season. But even still, Siakam was a leader for the 2019-20 Most Improved Player award – he’d made THAT much progress, again.
Only this season, the training wheels were off. Last year, Siakam was the Robin to Kawhi Leonard’s Batman. This season, Batman was nowhere to be found. And yet, Siakam and the Raptors kept pace. Sure, the 2018-19 team won the 2019 NBA Championship, but the 2019-20 Raptors had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference – and the third-best record in the entire league.
And much of Toronto’s success can be attributed to Siakam’s strong play. He averaged 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Oh, and he’s an elite wing defender.
The 26-year-old appears ready to take on the responsibility of leading a contender. But we’ve seen players better than Siakam struggle to lead their respective teams to the playoffs. He currently has the help he needs; will Toronto ensure that remains the case? If so, Siakam’s star will continue to rise for at least the next few seasons.
Statistics – 7.5 out of 10
Net effect – 9 out of 10
Overall score – 8.25 out of 10
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Tatum is as smooth as Italian leather. He’s grown into an incredibly adept scorer, averaging 23.6 points in 2019-20 – making him the leading scorer on the third-best team in the Eastern Conference. The 22-year-old also averaged 7.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, and he’s a supremely underrated defender. Oh, and he shot a hair below 40% on 7.1 three-point attempts per game this season – making him the best marksman on this list.
Tatum’s ceiling is almost impossible to define. He’s incredibly skilled at converting tough shots, and he’s a better ball handler than some point guards. He’s definitely the most “small ball” four we’ve mentioned thus far; but at 6-foot-8 and with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Tatum can stay with just about any power forwards in the association.
Tatum and Siakam are essentially interchangeable. We gave the edge to Siakam as he is clearly the Raptors’ best player, whereas Tatum played alongside Kemba Walker this season, who could be perceived as the Celtics best player.
Statistics – 7.5 out of 10
Net effect – 8.5 out of 10
Overall score – 8 out of 10
Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
Like Davis, Porzingis falls into the “isn’t he a center?” category. And like Davis, his 9.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game support that argument. What’s more, Porzingis’s 7-foot-3 frame REALLY confuse matters.
But the unicorn is more than just a lanky big man. Porzingis was the first player in NBA history to convert 300+ three-pointers and 400+ blocks in less than 200 career games. And he’s a 35.7% career three-point shooter. But Porzingis does more than shoot. He’s also a skilled big man who can put the ball on the floor and jump over equally tall defenders.
His return from a February 2018 knee injury was uncertain, but he looked better recently than he did before being suffering a left ACL tear. After a slow start to 2019-20, Porzingis averaged 24.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.4 blocks per game in February and March (14 games). He might’ve ranked even higher on this list had he put up those numbers all season.
Statistics – 7.5 out of 10
Net effect – 8 out of 10
Overall score – 7.75 out of 10
Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT
Adebayo’s breakout season was one of the worst kept secrets in NBA history. When the HEAT agreed to send Meyers Leonard to Portland in the Jimmy Butler trade, it was a clear sign that leadership in South Beach felt like they already had their big man of the future.
The HEAT may have known about Adebayo’s versatility prior to this season, but there wasn’t much tape to prove it – the third-year pro hadn’t averaged more than nine points per game in either of his first two seasons in the NBA. Well that’s no longer the case. Adebayo averaged 16.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game to go along with 5.1 assists and 1.3 blocks. He’s what you’d call a stat stuffer. He’s a uniquely versatile big man whose athleticism enables him to block shots floating far above the rim, collect the loose ball, initiate the break and finish it with a lob pass to one of his teammates.
But Adebayo’s game has one massive hole – he’s a sub-par midrange shooter (23.5%), and he’s awful from beyond the arc (7.7%). But if Adebayo becomes a serviceable shooter, he’ll have a skillset like few others before him.
Statistics – 7.5 out of 10
Net effect – 7.5 out of 10
Overall score – 7.5 out of 10
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Collins is a hard player to gauge. The Hawks underperformed preseason projections, and Trae Young’s usage was so high that it began to overshadow his teammates. But Collin’s PER was so impressive that we couldn’t rank him lower than seventh. He posed a 23.5 PER in 2019-20, good for third-best of any power forward in the entire league.
Collins had a great individual 2019-20 season, averaging 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, while shooting 40% on 3.6 three-point attempts per game.
Collins rolls off screens exceptionally well and he has excellent hands to catch passes in traffic. He also finishes around the rim, catches lobs with relative ease and generates lots of free throws thanks to his activity and motor. It will be interesting to see how his role develops alongside Young and the up-and-coming Hawks.
Statistics – 7.5 out of 10
Net effect – 6.5 out of 10
Overall score – 7 out of 10
Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
Ranking the top seven power forwards was relatively easy. The eighth spot was harder. Ultimately, we went with the eye test.
If Porzingis is the unicorn, then Jackson Jr. is version 2.0. Of the players on this list, only Davis (6.2%) and Porzingis (5.6%) blocked a higher percentage of field goal attempts while on the floor; Jackson Jr. blocked 5% of all field goal attempts while in the game. And he has a knack for getting himself back in defensive position and capitalizing on his length after being pushed off of his spot.
But Jackson does a whole lot more than just defend. His overall feel for the game looks even better than Porzingis’s, as he shot 39.7% on an impressive 6.3 attempts three-point attempts per game. In total, Jackson Jr. averaged 16.9 points per game while giving the Grizzlies a little bit of everything. He possesses great footwork in the post and the ability to score with both hands around the rim.
While his game is already impressive, Jackson Jr. has the most room left to grow of anyone on this list. And that’s probably the most impressive thing anyone can say about the second-year pro from Michigan State.
Statistics – 7 out of 10
Net effect – 7 out of 10
Overall score – 7 out of 10
Honorable mention: Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers; Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets; Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers; Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic; Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder; LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
Modern power forwards are far from the burly enforcers of the 80s and 90s. The present-day power forward must still collect rebounds and set screes, but they are also expected to dribble, pass and shoot. The range of size and skill within the position makes for a number of enticing matchups. With the possibility of watching Porzingis vs. Davis, Adebayo vs. Antetokounmpo, and Tatum vs. Siakam, can you blame us for being impatient to get back to basketball?
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.