The Whiteboard: Zion Williamson is blossoming before our eyes

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports /

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Zion Williamson and Ja Morant will always be linked — both because they went with the first two picks in the 2019 NBA Draft and because of the way their Rookie of the Year duel shook out last season. But the friendly rivalry isn’t just a narrative construction. They honestly seem to enjoy going at each other and Zion, especially seems determined to make the most out of their matchups.

The Pelicans have taken both of their matchups with the Grizzlies this season and the first — a 29-point explosion by Zion appears to have been a turning point. Since that first matchup, a Zion has been on a tear. He’s topped 20 points in all 13 games of the stretch that began with that win over Memphis, averaging 28.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game, shooting 64.8 percent from the field. As has been pointed out in several places, one of the most interesting variables in this surge is that Zion is getting a lot more opportunities to work with the ball in his hands.

Over this 13-game stretch, compared to the 20 games that came before them, Zion is driving far more often — 13.6 per game, up from 9.3 per game. And between better finishing and more fouls drawn, he’s been significantly more effective as well — .810 points per drive, up from .672. You can see this adapted role in his touch statistics as well. He’s getting more frontcourt touches per game and both his time of possession and dribbles per touch have nearly doubled over this current stretch.

Zion’s individual development is, somewhat obviously, paying big dividends for his teammates and the Pelicans’ offense. Over this 13-game stretch, the Pelicans have scored at an average rate of 125.2 points per 100 possessions with Zion on the floor, up from 114.8 to start the season. Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart all have posted true shooting percentages better than 60 with Zion on the floor during this stretch, significantly higher than when he’s been off the floor and, for Ball and Ingram, way up from what they were averaging playing with Zion during the first 20 games of the season.

What does Zion Williamson’s development mean for the New Orleans Pelicans?

These sorts of small changes may not feel like a big deal but they could have dramatic implications for the Pelicans’ future. The NBA Trade Deadline is fast approaching and it had been rumored earlier in the season that Lonzo Ball was being shopped. But he’s been fantastic, benefiting from an increasingly symbiotic relationship with Zion. Over the past 13 games, as Zion has exploded, Ball has averaged 16.8 points, 6.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, shooting 45.7 percent from the field and 45.3 percent from beyond the arc.

With Ball, Zion and Ingram on the floor over the past 13 games, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by an average of 3.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s far from the level of championship contention but it’s the point differential of a solid playoff team and considering that the two players who have played with them the most over that stretch — Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams — aren’t ideal fits or long-term pieces, there’s reason to think there’s even more upside with that three-man core.

Ball, Ingram and Zion are feeding off each other and the success they’re finding may make it more likely that the Pelicans hold onto Ball and try to re-sign him this summer. The Pelicans are still likely to be active at the trade deadline — Redick, Adams and Bledsoe are all pieces with more value to fringe contenders than New Orleans. But Zion’s development has taken some pressure off Ball and helped make Ingram even more efficient. As that trio looks increasingly viable together the Pelicans could be making some changes to their rebuilding blueprints.

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