Pelicans' flop brings more questions about Zion Williamson's viability as a franchise player

LAS VEGAS — Pelicans coaches and players walked off the garish blue and red court inside T-Mobile Arena with their chins tucked to their chests. Only a stoic high-five from executive vice president David Griffin brought some sets of eyes off the tunnel floor while New Orleans staffers retreated to the locker room following a lifeless 133-89 loss to LeBron James and the Lakers in Thursday night's in-season tournament semifinal.

“That’s not indicative of who we’ve been and who we are,” said head coach Willie Green. “Tonight we took a step in the wrong direction.”

The Pelicans had turned around a 4-6 start marred by injuries and won five of six games, three of those victories counting as in-season contests that helped push New Orleans into this tournament’s inaugural knockout round. Then the Pelicans went on the road to Sacramento and denied the Kings another emphatic beam on Monday night.

They flew right to Las Vegas from Northern California before the Lakers even hosted the Suns in Tuesday night’s quarterfinal matchup at Arena. Maybe it was the long layover between games, but New Orleans lacked any comparable umph to James’ and the Lakers’ collective fire. Zion Williamson in particular failed to match the intensity and output of James, who once marked a direct parallel for pre-draft hype before Williamson became the No. 1 pick in 2019 NBA Draft.

A string of misfortune has prevented Williamson from ever appearing in the NBA playoffs, let alone the play-in tournament these Pelicans qualified for last spring, when Williamson was sidelined by a lame hamstring. And while New Orleans notched an impressive road victory over Sacramento in Monday’s win-or-go-home quarterfinal matchup, Williamson posted a rather quiet 10 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. This marquee clash against James and the Lakers, on this manufactured stage, was supposed to provide the Pelicans with the closest glimpse of their franchise pillar in a postseason environment, and it provided little more than shaking heads and something that can only optimistically be chalked up as an opportunity to improve upon.

“It’s a moment that he can learn from,” Green said.

“I gotta be better,” said Willaimson. “I gotta be more aggressive finding my shot. I gotta do more things to get my team going. I think I was too laid back tonight, and I can’t do that.”

Williamson’s answers during a contrite four-minute postgame news conference continued to harp on his need to find added aggression from the game’s opening moments. When he was further pressed for specifics on how to change that level of force, Williamson suggested the challenge is something he needs to overcome between his ears.

“I have a problem where I literally just try to hunt the best shot possible every time,” Williamson said. “But I just gotta trust my game.”

When asked about James sagging off his lack of outside stroke, Williamson offered: “I think a lot of times I’m overthinking it, and I shouldn’t be doing that out there.”

If this environment can be something of a stepping stone for the rising Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference, or a sign of championship readiness in Los Angeles, then New Orleans and Williamson’s shortcomings must also be a harbinger for what could prove their death knell in April without action following these December lessons.

While Williamson has two deserved All-Star selections on his resume, this is the fifth season since the Pelicans anointed him as their savior. His elite athleticism that once drew comparisons to James appeared pedestrian by NBA standards on Thursday night, when countless spin moves toward his dominant left hand either fell flat or were rejected by a swarming Los Angeles defense. His conditioning, as well as his effectiveness on defense and both sides of the glass, may be larger signs of concern than anything regarding his scoring output or distribution, although Green did hint at some different ways to get the Pelicans’ superstar into more of a flow on offense.

“He has to get the ball in different ways,” Green said. “No. 1, transition, rebounding the ball you can push before their defense is set. That’s a way we can attack. Sometimes in pick and rolls. Being able to set the screen, dive and now you catch it on the move. And now it kinda frees him up to be able to score a little bit more in the half court.”

New Orleans staffers have lamented this team’s lack of cohesion due to injury. And while it’s surely difficult to build momentum without a consistent lineup, the Pelicans’ main actors are all back in the lineup, with fresh wounds to lick, and it’s never been more clear that New Orleans’ hopes of competing for anything meaningful lies on the broad shoulders of Williamson. Like James has done for the better part of two decades.

“He was aggressive,” Williamson said. “And his teammates saw that and it carried over.”