Zion Williamson Can Be as Valuable as the Pelicans Let Him Be

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2020

New Orleans Pelicans' Zion Williamson wears a Black Lives Matter shirt while warming up before the start of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)
Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Following 15 minutes of action on the night the NBA returned from its hiatus, Zion Williamson is at a whopping 580 on the season. Eleven members of the New Orleans Pelicans have logged more time on the floor.

And yet, their season is all about the man who wore "Peace" on the back of his jersey Thursday night.

In those 580 minutes Zion has played, New Orleans is plus-104 (he was actually a minus-16 in the 106-104 loss to the Utah Jazz). In the 2,570 minutes Zion has not played, the Pelicans are minus-159.

In stark contrast to the important message he chose to display above his number, Zion's game is anything but peaceful. He plays with a force few players across the history of the league could generate, and the attention he commands opens things up for his teammates.

That makes a minutes restriction in the eight-game leadup to the postseason much more than an inconvenience.

Following his departure from the "bubble," which put Zion in quarantine protocol up until Wednesday, ESPN's Malika Andrews tweeted shortly before tipoff that the 20-year-old rookie would "play in short bursts" during the re-opener.

Following the loss, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry revealed there was more to it than that.

"We wish we could have played Zion down the stretch," Gentry said, per ESPN's Andrew Lopez. "But he had used the minutes that had been given to us. That's just the way it is. We weren't going to stick him back out there. Our medical team said we played for us to play him."

That explanation does little more than lead to additional questions.

Is there an injury we don't know about? Is this just a conditioning problem? Was the team not in Zion's digital ear about conditioning throughout the hiatus? How or why did the time off lead to steps back on his timeline?

Perhaps most important: Why not save a few of those 15 minutes for the end of the game?

If there's a hard-and-fast rule limiting Zion to 15 minutes, New Orleans' coaching staff has to spread that out to include the potential for crunch time.

If the Pelicans want to make the playoffs, every one of these games is immensely important. They need to be in ninth place (at worst) and within four games of the eighth seed to force the play-in situation.

The four-games part of that equation isn't a huge deal. Even after Thursday's loss, they're only four back of the Memphis Grizzlies with the league's easiest remaining schedule. The problem is there are now two teams between New Orleans and Memphis, one of which has Damian Lillard and a finally healthy frontcourt. Oh, and the San Antonio Spurs now have one fewer loss.

The battle for ninth will go down to the wire, much like Thursday night's game. The Pelicans needed Zion then, and they'll need him moving forward.

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

New Orleans may have been outscored in the minutes he played against Utah, but he's been the team's most-impactful player this season. He has to be out there in the big moments.

In his limited action Thursday, he showed next to no rust coming out of quarantine.

He went 6-of-8 from the field and made his only free-throw attempt. On his first bucket, he essentially went through the typically sturdy Royce O'Neale on the way to an off-hand finish in traffic and at close to full speed. He scored on a traditional post move over Georges Niang. He later punished the same defender for fronting him 15 feet from the rim by spinning off him for an alley-oop.

He even showed a little flair with a behind-the-back dime to the guy who is usually found setting him up:

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All the physical tools were on vivid display, but the intangible aspects of his game are even more important. Williamson feels the game like a veteran. He knows when to attack and when to defer. His anticipation and exploitation of cutting and driving angles may be as instrumental as his athleticism in generating open looks.

There is still growth on the way for Zion, particularly on the defensive end, but he's more than ready to make a positive impact on a playoff team. If he is held to this minutes restriction for much longer (or if it's managed as it was Thursday), he may not get a chance to do so.

When Zion subbed out for the last time with 7:19 left in the fourth quarter, New Orleans was up 93-89 (giving it a 73.7 percent win probability). Over the rest of the game, Utah center Rudy Gobert had four points, including the game-winning free throws, and four rebounds. New Orleans' big men combined for zero points and two rebounds in that stretch.

Regardless of whether the Pelicans are able to ramp Zion's minutes up soon, they can't allow themselves to be put in this position again.

This season is about the rookie with superstar potential on the floor and a desire for peace off it. And that's especially true for each of the next seven games.