The New Orleans Pelicans are looking to build into a perennial contender in the Western Conference, and they're banking on Stan Van Gundy being the right guy to lead them there. The veteran head coach has experience when it comes to taking teams deep into the postseason. He led the Heat to the Eastern Conference finals in 2005 (they lost to the Detroit Pistons in seven games) and the Orlando Magic made it to the NBA Finals in 2009 where they lost to the Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers in five games. His Magic also made it back to the conference finals in 2010.
In New Orleans, Van Gundy becomes the seventh head coach in franchise history. He will serve as the successor to Alvin Gentry, who the Pelicans parted ways with in August after the team failed to qualify for postseason play for the fourth time in five seasons. A huge aspect of Van Gundy's job with the Pelicans will be to oversee, and guide, Zion Williamson's growth into a superstar in the league. Williamson is one of the most promising young players in the NBA, and after selecting him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, the Pelicans are counting on him to become a full-fledged superstar. Van Gundy shared some thoughts on Williamson during his introductory press conference with media members Tuesday, and he noted that Williamson's playmaking, along with his versatility, really sticks out.
"I think you have a vision for what he is, which is a multi-talented guy," Van Gundy said. "He is an unbelievable playmaker for a guy at his size. He's a guy that can take the ball of the glass and lead the break and make plays. He can make passes off of the dribble. He can finish over bigger people inside. He's a multi-talented guy. I don't look at him in any way if he's a four [power forward] or a five [center], I'm not sure those labels matter when it comes to him.
"I think when we study him and try to get more definitive and talk to Zion about what he likes, I think it's more [about] what positions do we want to put him in, and who's best around him, and things like that, it's not limiting him to a position. I think we'll get to a starting point of that at the start of the season, and my guess is, as time goes on, I'm going to find out that he can do even more than I think he can do, and things will evolve from there."
When it comes to young star players that still have developing to do, the word accountability often pops up, and Van Gundy's first press conference with the Pelicans was no different. Van Gundy was asked how he plans to hold Williamson accountable, and he made it clear that doing so will be a team effort.
"A lot of it is in talking to Zion, and I've talked to him on the phone, and I can't wait to sit down with him in person," Van Gundy said. "But as general manager [David Griffin] said, it's with everybody on our team and getting a feel for what our goals are and where they want to go in their career and what they want to see this team do, and then trying to help them get to that point and hold them accountable to those things they know they need to do to get there.
"A lot of times what accountability is all about is, 'Hey, you told me you want to be the best player in the NBA. You told me you want to be part of a championship team, and you also told me these are the things it takes.' I'm going to hold you accountable to that every day. It's not us coming down on Zion or anyone else on the roster, it's us trying to help them, and accountability is a big part of that."
Van Gundy's reputation as a great teacher of the game coupled with how his teams have typically been solid defensively were reportedly major factors in New Orleans' decision to hire him. Considering the Pelicans -- comprised of Williamson (20), Lonzo Ball (23), Brandon Ingram (23) and Josh Hart (25) -- are such a young team, that teaching ability is expected to come in handy. The way Van Gundy sees it, though, there's not much difference between coaching a young team or a veteran team, and he certainly doesn't plan to use age as an excuse.
"I don't think it's all that much different [coaching a young team as opposed to a team of veterans]," Van Gundy said. "I think the one thing is, and I've already talked to our players, and I don't want them, or us, to ever use youth as an excuse. I think sometimes you can start with, 'Oh, well we were young, and that's why we turned the ball over three times in the last two minutes of a tied game.' Listen, they're all great players, and they came into this league young because of their talent, but it's time to play and compete, and I don't want to use that as an excuse."
During his rookie campaign, Williamson showed flashes of the combination of explosion and intellect that led to him being one of the most highly hyped prospects in recent memory. He averaged 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, and he was named to the NBA's All-Rookie First Team. However, injury issues limited Williamson to just 24 games last season, and as a result there are some lingering questions about his durability. His development under Van Gundy will be a central storyline to keep an eye on next season.