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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.

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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.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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