It's All About Zion Williamson for NBA's Biggest Sellers

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IMarch 1, 2021

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) and guard Lonzo Ball (2) talk on the court in the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
Brandon Dill/Associated Press

The New Orleans Pelicans operate around a clear North Star. From roster-building to lineup experimentation, these days in the bayou are rightfully engineered around complementing Zion Williamson and his historic ability to dominate the interior.

That is why the Pelicans did not reach rookie-extension agreements with either Lonzo Ball or Josh Hart before the season, sources said. That same calculus played into Brandon Ingram's extension discussions as well.

New Orleans appears willing to wait and assess before committing to any player's long-term status alongside Williamson, and that is also why Ball's name, in particular, has been widely discussed in preliminary trade conversations this winter. You'd be hard-pressed to find a team New Orleans hasn't phoned to gauge interest in Ball, JJ Redick and Eric Bledsoe. "They've been calling, and where there's smoke, there's fire," said one assistant general manager.

Rookie extensions and restricted free agency always bring their challenges regarding starting-caliber youngsters who don't necessarily project as elite players at their positions. For example, finalizing Ball's next deal won't be as clean as Ingram's new contract became after he bloomed into an All-Star. Ball is also represented by Rich Paul, and despite executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin's long-standing relationship with Paul and Klutch Sports (Bledsoe is also a Paul client), the agent is noted for a staunch negotiating style. Griffin, remember, was on the other side when Paul's client Tristan Thompson held out in Cleveland in 2015.

To Ball's credit, he seems to have answered the questions that once surrounded his fit next to Williamson and Ingram. After converting just 32.1 percent of his 112 outside attempts through January, he sniped 45.9 percent from deep on a greater number of three-point attempts (8.1 per game) in February—all after rumors of his availability via trade became public.

If his shooting can continue, Ball suddenly bills as an ideal floor general next to the Pelicans' two All-Stars. He shows little ego, is eager to throw hit-ahead passes in transition and can space the floor once he's off the ball in the half court—all while boasting defensive positional versatility.

"If you just let Lonzo be Lonzo and Zion be Zion, they're gonna team up for 8, 10 points a night," said one NBA coach. For now, it appears there's little expectation New Orleans will move Ball before the March 25 trade deadline, sources said.

Pelicans officials have been impressed with how Ball responded to the trade chatter and cite his three-game break during New Orleans' six-game road trip in mid-January as the springboard for his recent success. Ball was able to rest the achy knees that have given him trouble throughout his young career, while several New Orleans executives and coaches pulled him aside for individual conversations. He further tweaked his already-refined shooting mechanics after film study, and the Pelicans are generally optimistic about how he has accepted his secondary role. Many now view the point guard as New Orleans' third-best player.

Redick and Bledsoe, however, still appear very much available, league sources said.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

The Pelicans certainly need shooting to supplement Williamson, yet Redick's defensive decline in this later stage of his career dates back to his final season in Philadelphia. And while he was brought in by Griffin to serve as a playoff-tested cultural leader, Alvin Gentry's coaching staff even lobbied the front office to move on from him last season, sources said. There's now a widespread sense New Orleans is hoping to move Redick to a franchise closer to his family in Brooklyn. "I think they're just trying to do right by him," said a league source close to the situation.

At 31, Bledsoe's own defensive deficiencies make him a suboptimal starting option in the backcourt, and the point guard does not match a Pelicans timeline that features the younger Williamson and Ingram. Moving Bledsoe would also afford more playing time for Nickeil Walker-Alexander and Kira Lewis Jr., two young ball-handlers the front office is said to be particularly bullish on but who have been trapped behind the veteran in Stan Van Gundy's rotation. "That's the challenge when you bring in an old-school coach," said a rival scout.

There's also been an obvious emphasis to increase the opportunities for Williamson to conduct the Pelicans offense of late. New Orleans has held ongoing internal discussions to determine which position optimizes Williamson's unique abilities. He once thrived as a point guard on the AAU circuit, and Griffin is said to believe that is where he will shine brightest at the NBA level. One may recall how the executive referred to Williamson as "Draymond Green with rockets in [his] ass" prior to the 2019-20 season.

Williamson, of course, played only 24 games as a rookie, and with the shortened offseason and the lack of practice time throughout this chaotic campaign, New Orleans has had less opportunity than it would like to shift such a dynamic piece around its chessboard. And for all the benefits of Williamson handling the ball, he has served as a devastatingly dangerous lob threat as the screener in pick-and-rolls.

For now, the Pelicans and Van Gundy appear committed to experimenting with Williamson in big-big lineups, as evidenced by the Derrick Favors signing a year ago, drafting Jaxson Hayes instead of Rui Hachimura at No. 8 in 2019 and acquiring Steven Adams to support Williamson in the frontcourt this season. "It definitely feels like that stretch 5 isn't their priority," said one Western Conference executive.

Derick Hingle/Associated Press

In their trade discussions with Oklahoma City, sources said, the Pelicans never inquired about adding Al Horford, who's more of an outside shooting threat. When Myles Turner was available this offseason, New Orleans did not engage seriously with Indiana on acquiring his services either, sources said.

Adding Adams did reemphasize New Orleans' goal of making the postseason. The Pelicans want to compete and are focused on helping Williamson grow and develop within a winning environment. "You don't re-sign Adams if you're not serious about the playoffs," said one rival team scout.

New Orleans has looked into adding more pieces who can bolster a run to the postseason, such as inquiring about Kelly Oubre Jr., which was reported in January and league sources confirmed to B/R. But at this juncture, rival teams believe the Pelicans are primarily focused on returning more draft capital to their already-stocked war chest. "They just want to accumulate more and more picks," said one league source close to the situation. "They're in an arms race with OKC."

A belief also exists among other front offices that New Orleans' mega trades of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday have perhaps warped the Pelicans' perspective of the market. "You're not getting multiple picks and swaps for Redick or Bledsoe right now," said the Western Conference exec.

"They're going to have to lower the asking price," added the rival team scout.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Any extra draft ammunition would theoretically add to a potential New Orleans offer for Bradley Beal if the Wizards' centerpiece were ever to become available. Whether for Beal or another All-Star-caliber player, the Pelicans surely hope to use the picks from Holiday and Davis to best any rival's package. "Their interest is definitely to consolidate and do something sooner rather than later," said the Western Conference official. New Orleans, by all accounts, preferred moving Holiday for established players and immediate help, as opposed to a stash of draft assets, yet those players were never made available, sources said.

The value of all the Pelicans' extra picks also remains quite uncertain. The Lakers' 2021 first-rounder (protected Nos. 8-30) will be unprotected when it conveys in 2022, but it's difficult to imagine that selection coming earlier than the 20s. The same goes for New Orleans' 2023 swap rights with Los Angeles, the Lakers' 2024 first and the Bucks' incoming draft capital spanning 2024-27.

For now, the Williamson experimentation continues, and only Ingram and Ball present as independent variables moving forward. The playoffs remain New Orleans' ultimate goal despite facing an uphill battle to leapfrog Memphis and Dallas for the final spots in the new play-in tournament.

Whether Bledsoe and Redick can net some significant return to help those efforts remains a storyline to watch as March 25 approaches. Yet outside of those two scenarios, the Pelicans seem destined to ride with this group as intended, hoping their generational talent can lift them back into the postseason.