Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson and the stakes of a second chance

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Anthony Davis casts a long shadow over the Pelicans’ current rebuilding efforts but so far they’re doing just fine by Zion Williamson.

In the short legacy of the New Orleans Pelicans, Anthony Davis looms large. Technically drafted as a Hornet — a title he held for just one season before the franchise re-branded to more suit the swampy nature of their region — the current Los Angeles Lakers big man is still the most important figure in the team’s history since they became birds. A relocated, renamed team in a sort of half-expansion state, the Pelicans were granted a rare gift when the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, and thus Davis, fell to them. Seemingly as a consolation prize, Michael Jordan and his miffed Charlotte organization got their name back from New Orleans a year later — Davis was the generational talent their perma-mediocre roster was waiting to build around, but instead, and against the odds, the Pelicans got a jump start instead.

Things didn’t go quite as terribly, from there, as Davis’s agents made it seem in 2019 when they forced their star to be traded away. The Pelicans did make the playoffs with Davis just twice, even as he blossomed into an MVP-caliber player. In the 2017-18 season, they were a legitimate threat, sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in memorably brutal fashion before failing against the Golden State Warriors, who with Kevin Durant epically warped the universal sense of self-worth in the sport. Davis, having never been put in a position to win a championship in New Orleans, found himself easily persuaded by LeBron James that, in Tinsel Town, things could be different.

That the Pelicans got Brandon Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, back for Davis, plus Josh Hart — one of the more curious role players in the game, right now; more on him later — brought some relief, but nothing close to the calming counter-luck of stumbling, once again, into the No. 1 overall pick.

Now with Zion Williamson to build a team around, the Pelicans presumably have a heavier sense of the stakes they’re dealing with and must take the task of turning his supporting cast into the stuff of championship contention as seriously as any basketball thing can be taken. You’re not supposed to catch lightning twice, and if you do? And you mess it up again? You deal with an indifferent God. So far, the Pelicans are doing… okay? It’s hard to tell, when the 20-year-old missed the first half of his rookie season, which was then interrupted and suspended for several months by a global pandemic, which has also greatly shifted the goalposts on his second season, which is also led by a new coach.

Why will it be different for the New Orleans Pelicans with Zion Williamson?

Through all this chaos, though, it’s clear that Zion is worth the effort, if not performing a bit beneath the standards that the hype around him set — to do that, he’ll have to show great improvement defensively. It’s hard to complain much, though, when a player who has yet to clock a full normal season’s worth of contests is already the best in the game at one of its most valuable skills: scoring near the basket.

With his combination of heft, speed, and touch, it really just isn’t possible to deal with Williamson when he gets the ball near the rim against single coverage, and in most cases double coverage. This already established, the Pelicans have gradually, and in recent weeks more drastically, increased his usage as a ball-handler. Point Zion has shown quick-growing vision as a passer, using his gravity as a driver and scorer to collapse defenses and create easy shots for the likes of Ingram and Hart.

Unlike the addition of center Steven Adams, a tough guy in decline who mucks up space around the hoop where Zion should ideally be freelancing, Hart and Ingram are perfect fits around Williamson and, in my estimation, crucial to keep around. Ingram has already signed his long-term extension, but Hart goes into restricted free agency this summer. He will be seeing some offers, so long as general managers around the league are doing their homework: a strange hybrid player,

Hart can defend power forwards and rebound like one too, despite being just 6-foot-5 and functioning as mostly a floor-spacer on offense. Because he is also adept as a guard in higher-paced situations, he is a dream player for the modern game. And what we have seen with Adams out with an ankle ailment is that Hart very nicely fills in the existing gaps in Williamson’s game — often lost on defense, Zion does not collect boards at the rate his frame would suggest, but Hart picks up a lot of that slack without forcing the Pelicans to sacrifice what they do with Adams on the floor.

Hart played 37 minutes in a 24-point comeback win over the Boston Celtics this past weekend, which to those who watched looked every bit like a coming-of-age moment caught on live television. For much of Zion’s NBA career, he has been an over-exposed work-in-progress, force-fed to viewers most likely because he was such a sensation in college that he projected as a crossover talent in an era increasingly defined by balkanized NCAA and NBA audiences.

But in the galvanizing win against Boston, Williamson looked perfectly surrounded by complementary pieces, leading a team with a rising sense of identity and purpose. The Pelicans even played great defense down the stretch, suffocating Jalen Brown and Kemba Walker and forcing the Celtics to get too much of their offense out of high-difficulty shots from Jayson Tatum, while Zion reliably created the space for much simpler forms of scoring on the other end.

Ingram, increasingly aware of how he can benefit from an offense built around Zion, led the team with 33 points in the big win. His ambition should be — and seemingly is — to resist the temptation to lean on inconsistent, high-effort offensive wizardry, and instead maximize the fruit borne from all the extra space and mismatches presented to him in a duo arrangement with Zion. The more the two of them can make their offense a series of basic algorithms, the more they will see easy looks, which should almost always be available if they play their cards right. Regardless of whether Hart or any of the other role players join them going forward, it’s clear that those worried about the Pelicans fumbling the bag with Zion as they did with A.D. have a lot to be optimistic about. The hardest part of team-building is over. But the rest isn’t easy.

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