The Pelicans did a pretty good job keeping afloat this season until Zion Williamson finally debuted in February. He played 19 games for New Orleans before the season was suspended. He’s now had an additional couple of months to strengthen his knee. No workout really replicates live game play but I think this is a net positive for him and the Pelicans.
New Orleans went 10-9 with Zion in the lineup and 18-27 without him. The Pelicans are a good offensive team but improved by 5 points per game with Zion and got slightly better defensively, turning a –3 average margin into a +5. They were one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league this past season but I think what will make a big difference is the free throw rates of their top two scorers, Brandom Ingram and Zion Williamson.
Ingram’s free throw rate is almost 33% and with a smaller sample size, Zion Williamson is at 52%. Free throw rate is the ratio of free throws to field goal attempts. It’s a measure of aggressiveness. That’s important because when the Pelicans need a bucket, they can rely on either one of their top scorers to attack the basket and get to the foul line. Ingram would be the first option for this as he’s nearly an 86% free throw shooter. Zion is at only around 65%, but again, small sample size.
They’re aren’t good defensively but even some rustiness from the layoff offensively can be offset by getting to the rim. And that’s what Ingram and Williamson excel at. This has and will lead to more open looks for their shooters, like JJ Redick and surprisingly, Lonzo Ball, and allow them to shake the rust off quickly.
The schedule works out really well for the Pelicans. They have a head to head with the Grizzlies in their third game, which becomes even more important if they can’t beat the Jazz and Clippers in their first two games. Remember, by that third game, the rust should be off. They also face the Kings twice, the injured Wizards and Spurs and finish against the Magic. They could run those five games so even with a 1-2 or 0-3 start, New Orleans could finish 6-2 or 5-3.
They’re my pick to not only stay close with the Grizzlies but eventually play their way into the 8th seed. That would set up a fun matchup with the Lakers in the first round. It would be more fun if Anthony Davis were going back to New Orleans at least twice to face his former team. But the neutral site with no fans will benefit the Pelicans more, as their young stars won’t have to face a hostile road crowd. I don’t think the Pelicans are talented enough to advance past the Lakers but I think they can definitely win a couple of games and be competitive just about every night giving them a lot of momentum going into next season.
Next season, a full year of Zion Williamson along with everyone else getting a year older should make the Pelicans a force in the West. They will shed the contracts of Derrick Favors and E’Twaun Moore, allowing them to beef up their bench which is the probably the biggest hole this team has right now. Big things are ahead for the Pelicans this season and in the coming years.