Should Zion Williamson Even Want to Play with Anthony Davis in New Orleans?

Preston EllisContributor IMay 23, 2019

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 26: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 26, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Lance King/Getty Images

When the New Orleans Pelicans' ping-pong balls came up big on May 14, the question quickly shifted from when the franchise would trade Anthony Davis to whether they'd trade him at all. 

"We'll probably sit together in Los Angeles at some point around the draft workouts that take place there," executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said Tuesday, per ESPN's Mike Triplett, during a conference call to introduce newly hired general manager Trajan Langdon. "... We're very confident that we have a compelling situation for [Davis] here.

He continued: "And if winning is what he is indeed all about, which we have every reason to believe, we feel confident that we can create—and are creating—the right environment for Anthony and frankly for high-caliber players of all types to want to be a part of."

If you were Griffin, why wouldn't you attempt to mend broken fences? 

Davis is one of the league's most disruptive help defenders at the rim and has an ever-developing offensive skill set. He poured in a ridiculous 32.6 points, 14.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists in January before the infamous trade request on Jan. 28. Along with his status as a six-time All-Star, he's made three All-NBA first teams, featured on three All-Defensive teams and was a top-three finisher in MVP and Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2017-18.

But here's the catch: Griffin will have one major reason to trade his star after the 2019 NBA draft on June 20. 

Zion Williamson should not want to play with Anthony Davis.

             

The Distraction

Davis (26) could carve out a long Hall of Fame career alongside Zion (18), who the Pelicans are widely expected to select with the No. 1 pick. But his presence would overshadow the young Blue Devil's entrance to the big stage. 

Basketball fans in New Orleans have had enough of the theatrics that provided the impetus for head coach Alvin Gentry's now-infamous "dumpster fire" soliloquy. In fact, Gentry's open-ended assessment of just how difficult the season became after Davis' trade request should only have further endeared him to New Orleans' front office.

"And as Griff has said in the past, we want guys that are all-in in New Orleans and look forward to having those kinds of people and those kinds of players," Langdon said this past Friday. 

Davis hasn't provided any evidence to suggest he's "all-in," so why should it be up to Griffin and Langdon to beg him to come back and sign a five-year extension?

"That type of conversation is not allowed in my training sessions," Pelicans performance consultant Mike Guevara told me on The Bird Calls in reference to Davis' offseason decision. "Because I don't think he wants to talk about it and that's not our focus. He definitely doesn’t bring it up."

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 18: Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans walks onto court before the game against the Dallas Mavericks on March 18, 2019 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
Glenn James/Getty Images

From AD's demand to his comments at All-Star Weekend to exiting the Smoothie King Center much to the chagrin of his head coach, Davis should shoulder a tremendous amount of blame for the Pelicans' wasted season. Maybe you could expect a "New Year, New AD" slogan in 2019-20, but you risk exposing a young cornerstone in Zion to that toxicity if Davis still has eyes for another situation. 

              

The Right Mentor

Last year, the Pelicans were definitively better with Davis on the floor than anyone (except Jrue Holiday), but they routinely came up short in the minutes that mattered most when he was leading the charge. In December, armed with 36.6 minutes per game from their star, they posted a minus-18.1 net rating in 12 clutch opportunities. In February, they improved to a 17.0 net rating over 11 games while Davis only made eight appearances and logged 16.9 minutes per game, none of which came in the final period or affected the statistic in any fashion. 

Those numbers can't be argued.

That Holiday was able to close out games better than all but six teams in February while sharing the floor with Frank Jackson, Darius Miller, Kenrich Williams and some combination of Jahlil Okafor and Cheick Diallo should scream in deafening tones just how strange Davis' 2018-19 tenure became. 

Why should Griffin and Langdon risk hindering the 18-year-old star's development when they can find a trade that leads to an amicable split for everyone involved? 

Instead, let Jrue mentor Zion.   

"In terms of his role of embracing being the face of the franchise, I think [Holiday] embraces it," Guevara said. "He is very excited to be that guy. He's a quiet leader, but he's a leader nonetheless. And guys respect him. When he does talk, when he speaks up people listen. 

"If the keys to the car are being handed to him, I think he's ready to take the car for a spin and be the leader of the franchise. If that's the situation he's put in, we all have something to be excited about.”

If Zion is to become the workhorse, leader and face of the franchise for which the city of New Orleans yearns, wouldn't Holiday be the more suitable player to show him the ropes? With Holiday leading the charge, the Pelicans play a hard-nosed brand of basketball that largely flies under the national radar. With Davis at the helm, the city constantly had to defy and fend off reports questioning their legitimacy

That's not all on Davis. Teammates will be the first to step up in his defense. The team remains a close-knit group, and Holiday even said after Davis' trade request, per NOLA.com's Andrew Lopez, that the big man was "like 90 percent" of why he stayed in red and gold. 

"Most importantly, [Davis and Holiday] are friends and they are close and they both respect each other," Guevara said. "It has nothing to do with AD's situation."

But regardless of intent, Davis' presence in New Orleans would bring along a circus should Griffin trot the six-time All-Star out onto the court for opening night.  

                  

A Problematic Position

Davis and Williamson make for a perfect pairing on paper. The 6'10" Davis possesses the rare combination of size and length that makes him an ideal modern-day NBA center.

Just one problem: He doesn't seem to like playing center. 

In the above video, Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams forces a switch from Nikola Mirotic to Davis. You'd think this would benefit the Pelicans. Instead, Adams uses his overwhelming physicality to push past Davis with little to no resistance.

On the other end, Davis shies away from contact and instead opts for a fadeaway. On the third possession, he fails to get back into the paint to challenge Russell Westbrook. 

Those three possessions alone indicate just how important it is to secure a wide-bodied center alongside Davis. Zion could become that low-post wrecking ball, but is it fair to ask that of him in his first year?

"Anybody coming out of college doesn't truly understand the rigors of an NBA season," Guevara said. "They're never ready for that. Everyone has to have some sort of training situation prior to the season and even during the season. They're still preparing for 82 and hopefully more."

The 2018-19 campaign was the first in which Davis embraced the role to start the season, but you can see in that previous clip some of the ramifications of the full-time adjustment.

In the past, Davis had paired with Robin Lopez, Omer Asik, DeMarcus Cousins and Emeka Okafor. Even though he seemed to dominate Jusuf Nurkic as a full-time center during a first-round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2018 playoffs, Mirotic guarded Nurkic for the bulk of the series. Davis instead utilized his elite off-ball defense to trap Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum while helping off Al-Farouq Aminu.

Can Zion take the low-post pounding of an NBA center each time down the floor through 82 games? Or would he be better off sharing the floor with a large-bodied presence who could sprint out to the perimeter and give him full control of the offense like Giannis Antetokounmpo enjoys for the Milwaukee Bucks? 

             

The City Is Ready to Move On

If Davis is out of the equation, Williamson should feel comfortable acting as a vocal leader and locker room mouthpiece to fill the void the Pelicans were desperate to cement. Without Cousins and Rajon Rondo to present to the media, the Pelicans locker room became one of the quietest across the NBA and often left reporters fumbling for quotes.

In fact, the team vacated the arena without a single comment on two specific instances.

This won't be a problem for Zion.

Zion carries a superstar smile and humility that should overwhelm his teammates and the press. Plus, everything is happening the right way all around him. Assuming the Pelicans handle the ongoing Davis saga properly, he's being put into the perfect position to succeed.

New Orleans' slam-dunk front-office tandem of Griffin and Langdon is already turning heads around the league. They've now been joined by longtime Phoenix Suns athletic trainer Aaron Nelson, who helped spark a $4.8 million upgrade for the Pelicans' six-year-old facilities. 

Excitement levels for NBA basketball in New Orleans haven't been this high in a long time. We've already seen what it's done for ticket sales:

As reported following May 14's draft lottery, New Orleans sold more than 3,000 season tickets in the first 24 hours after the acquisition of the No. 1 pick, all while knowing a Davis departure is almost certain. There was no promise made about his future, no reversal of heart and mind.

Those fans purchased tickets to see Zion, and the organization is doing everything in its power to position him for success.

"The Pelicans matter immeasurably to [owner Gayle Benson]. And literally in all these hirings, she's putting her money where her mouth is and she's empowering us to go and attract the best and the brightest," Griffin said at Langdon's introductory press conference. "And I think when you win the lottery in the midst of all those other things, it starts to really lend itself to changing a narrative."

So once more: Why should Zion Williamson want to play with Anthony Davis?

                 

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference.

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