Zion’s return is not enough to solve the problems plaguing Pelicans

While the long-delayed return of Zion Williamson will help the Pelicans, his injury has revealed that their problems are much deeper than his absence.

The New Orleans Pelicans season has been haunted by the absence of Zion Williamson. On media day, it was announced that he had suffered a foot injury but that the team expected him to be back by the regular season. However, the season is now halfway through and Zion has yet to appear in a game and no concrete timeline has been set for his return. With the underperforming Pelicans currently only 1.5 games out of the play-in picture, his presence could make a huge difference, but if one thing has become clear this season for New Orleans, it is that their issues go far beyond Zion’s injury troubles.

The New Orleans Pelicans are currently 15-26 and it’s hard to find reasons for optimism. They are 25th in both offensive and defensive efficiency and are still in the playoff picture more because other teams have underperformed than because of anything they have done themselves. They have stockpiled a number of young players who the team must have imagined could grow and develop alongside Williamson, but most have instead been struggling to acclimate to life in the NBA.

In the 2019 Draft, in addition to Zion Williamson, the Pelicans also acquired Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The next year they added Kira Lewis Jr. and this season they added Herbert Jones and Trey Murphy III. Apart from Jones, who is having a promising rookie season, none have quite panned out the way Pelicans fans would have hoped.

The Pelicans got Zion Williamson right but they’ve missed on plenty of other draft picks

After a promising second season with the Pelicans, in which his percentages improved in larger minutes, Alexander-Walker has fallen back to his rookie levels this year. While his 13 points per game look good at first glance, he is averaging more field goal attempts per game than points. There have been games and moments where he has looked like one of the most dynamic young scorers in the NBA, but those are unfortunately the exception. These glimpses are tantalizing, but unless he can string them together more consistently, it’s not clear how much he can help the Pelicans moving forward.

His draftmate Hayes has shown himself to be a viable backup center. In his third season, Hayes still relies more on athleticism and verve than refined skill, but he shoots a high percentage and injects the team with energy every time he enters the game. However, the question of how much more than this he can be remains open. He is only 21 so there is theoretically lots of room for growth, though he is fundamentally the same player he was when he entered the league. And though there is obvious value in having a solid backup center, one would certainly hope for more from someone drafted eighth overall.

It’s too soon to make anything of Murphy III — the rookie is currently shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc than within it — or Lewis Jr., who will miss the rest of the season due to an ACL tear. Of the team’s available young players, Herbert Jones, a second-round pick from Alabama, has looked best this season. Though only averaging 8 points and 3 rebounds per game, he has slotted into the starting power forward slot and has established himself as a capable shooter, making over 37 percent of his 3’s.

The Pelicans’ best player is Brandon Ingram and he appears to have plateaued, if not regressed a tiny bit. His field goal, 3-point, and free throw percentages are all the lowest they have been since he joined the Pelicans. It would be silly to make too much of this though. Part of this is simply due to defenses being more concerned with stopping Ingram than the Pelicans’ other priority perimeter scorers, Graham and Alexander-Walker, who are both shooting 37 percent from the field. Ingram remains an adept three-level scorer — likely an underrated one all things considered — albeit one that is struggling a bit with defenses able to focus so heavily on him. It’s hard to imagine Williamson’s return benefiting anyone more than him.

There are promising line-ups and combinations that indicate that the Pelicans may have a more solid core than it appears. A grouping of Jonas Valanciunas, Jones, Devonte Graham, and Ingram is the team’s most used four-man lineup and those four have a net rating of 4.5, which while not astonishing, at least points to a potential way forward. When you reduce it to the first three, the trio has a net rating of 8.8 in 571 minutes together. For a team whose overall net rating is -4.9, this is notable. What is unfortunate is that, apart from Jones, none of this foursome is one of the Pelicans’ young players, leading one to wonder about the team’s timeline and future.

It is obviously too soon to write off young players like Hayes, Alexander-Walker, Lewis, and Murphy, and say that they can never be more than what they have been thus far. They are still very young and players in their early and mid-20’s often take enormous, unexpected leaps that few would have imagined. Perhaps Lewis will come back from injury renewed; perhaps Alexander-Walker will regain his 3-point stroke and learn how to finish in the paint; perhaps Hayes will expand his game and emerge as a quality starter. If one or two of them can blossom into the players the Pelicans hoped when they acquired them, then the future may be bright. If all of them fail to progress though, the team may be stuck where they are regardless of Zion’s presence.

None of the individual moves that David Griffin has made since taking over the Pelicans in 2019 has been indefensible or particularly egregious. However, taken together, they do not add up to anything solid. There may be a shape, an overarching plan, but it is not immediately apparent at a glance. It seems that, out of desperation to ensure that New Orleans does not lose its third generational player of the last 15 years, Griffin has continually tinkered in the hopes of finding something that works both immediately and long-term, though with little luck.

The number of draft picks they have stockpiled from the Lakers and the Bucks gives hope for the future, but the team cannot afford to wait indefinitely for those selections to convey and develop. They already have two young All-Stars on the team and though Williamson’s future is unclear in light of his consistent injuries, it is clear that his return will not fix all that ails the Pelicans.

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