We didn't get as much Zion Williamson as we wanted last season, but those first 19 games were something. He made his debut in January, after the New Orleans Pelicans had turned their season around, and, instantly, they hit another gear.
Williamson averaged 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 29.7 minutes. He might not have been in the best condition, coming off a knee injury, but he was still able to transform New Orleans' already-scary transition game and overpower people in the post. He didn't appear to disrupt Brandon Ingram's rhythm at all.
In 565 minutes before the bubble, the Pelicans had a plus-10.4 net rating with Williamson on the court. This alone is a compelling argument for them making a leap in his second year.
But while Williamson and Ingram are still the most important players, coach Alvin Gentry is gone, replaced by Stan Van Gundy, who intends to tighten up the defense. Usually, that would be a tough task after trading Jrue Holiday, but New Orleans acquired Eric Bledsoe, who has made two straight All-Defensive Teams, in the deal. The Pelicans also traded for Steven Adams, who will play the role vacated by Derrick Favors.
Ideally, Van Gundy will get this thing organized and give New Orleans a shot at a playoff spot. It will not look like his Pistons or Magic, though, because this personnel demands a much faster pace. Turnovers could be more of a problem than they are for a typical Van Gundy team, and the presence of Williamson -- a player who is not typical in any way -- means the Pelicans will have options that other teams don't.
The big unknown is how this new group will work together. New Orleans needs center Jaxson Hayes and guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker to be helpful rotation players in Year 2. Rookie Kira Lewis Jr. will have a chance to earn a regular role, too. Adams isn't going to start shooting 3s, so the Pelicans' spacing will depend on Bledsoe and Lonzo Ball shooting with conviction.
Taking the temperature
Pelicans believer: Don't sleep on the Pelicans. I know the West is tough, but this feels like a playoff team. They should've been one last year, and frankly, I'm still befuddled by their terrible start and their weak showing in the bubble. Zion is in good condition, and Van Gundy is going to make sure this team is disciplined and has a strong defensive identity.
Pelicans skeptic: It's easy to say they should have been a playoff team last year. Based on their roster, yeah, I figured they'd be solid on defense and one of the more injury-resistant teams in the league. That is not at all what they turned out to be, and it's not as if Holiday and Favors were to blame. Maybe the new coaching staff can fix everything, but it's hard to be that optimistic about the Pelicans after seeing them look like a total mess in the bubble. Even David Griffin said they had a competitiveness issue there, and now they have a spacing issue!
I get the Holiday-Bledsoe trade because of all the draft picks, but they should be surrounding Zion with shooters, not acquiring a traditional center and immediately giving him a $35 million extension. I don't get it.
Pelicans believer: Griffin did say they had a competitiveness issue in the bubble, which is exactly why he's so excited about Adams and Bledsoe, two players who will help New Orleans win even though people on the internet don't like them as much as they did a few years ago.
I need to push back about the spacing. Is JJ Redick going to shoot fewer 3s for some reason? Is Brandon Ingram? Is there anything about Van Gundy's track record that suggests he's not going to play lineups with shooters on the floor? Holiday and Bledsoe shoot 3s at roughly the same frequency and Holiday has only a marginal edge in accuracy. I expect Ball to continue his upward trajectory as a shooter and I expect Van Gundy to empower Zion as a playmaker. When defenders collapse on Williamson, everybody is going to get open looks.
Pelicans skeptic: But will they make those open looks? I buy Ingram's improvement as a shooter, but I'm not as sold on Ball's. Bledsoe's percentage isn't awful, but he doesn't have gravity and appears to have lost his confidence. In 2017-18, he took an average of three spot-up 3s per game and made 39 percent of them. Last season, he took an average of 1.4 and made 26.4 percent of them. I don't think Alexander-Walker or Lewis is scaring anybody out there, either.
Pelicans believer: The Pelicans were a good 3-point shooting team last season, and you're never going to convince me that putting Bledsoe in Holiday's spot and losing E'Twaun Moore is going to turn them into a terrible one. Regardless, you're basically arguing that you don't trust their halfcourt offense, which, fine, I guess. I think they can be pretty good in that area, but that's not going to be what drives their success. They're going to get stops, run like hell and dominate the boards. Opponents are going to hate playing against this team, which I can't say was the case last year.
Pelicans skeptic: They'll run like hell, sure. And when Zion and Adams are out there together, they better dominate the boards. But declaring that they're going to get stops feels like an extremely aggressive take. Williamson had no idea what he was doing on defense last season, Redick isn't the same kind of defender at 36 as he was when Van Gundy last coached him. Is Hayes going to stop fouling people and turn into 2011 Tyson Chandler all of a sudden? Van Gundy never did turn Andre Drummond into Dwight Howard.
And even if Van Gundy somehow solves all of their defensive problems, the West is way too deep for me to just wave away my concerns about their halfcourt offense.
Pelicans believer: Hayes isn't going to be 2011 Chandler, but maybe he'll be like a younger Clint Capela? The game should slow down for him and Zion, and I'm sure Van Gundy will give them the structure to speed that process along. Remember, Zion was a spectacular defender in college. There's no reason he shouldn't develop into a good one in the NBA.
Really, this comes down to what you make of the 36-game stretch in which the Pelicans played like a top-10 team. From Dec. 18 -- more than a month before Zion played his first game -- until the 2019-20 season stopped in March, they went 22-14 with a plus-3.8 net rating. I think that's more representative of their talent than what we saw early in the season and in the restart. They're different now, but they're perfectly capable of building on that.
Eye on: Nickeil Alexander-Walker
It's time for Alexander-Walker to fulfill the promise he showed in college and at summer league. He looked uncomfortable as a rookie, turnover-prone and inefficient in limited minutes, with the exception of a handful of encouraging performances, including a 29-point, seven-assist showing in the final game of the season.
At his best, Alexander-Walker is an intelligent pick-and-roll player, a versatile defender and a pretty good shooter. He can work on and off the ball, he throws nifty passes with his off-hand and he is long enough to guard big wings. With Moore and Frank Jackson out of the way and Van Gundy wanting multiple playmakers on the court, there is a clear path toward consistent minutes. With Lewis and Sindarius Thornwell in the picture, though, he will still have to earn them.