The New Orleans Pelicans’ Play-In Performance Only Deepens Their Simmering Zion Williamson Problem

When the New Orleans Pelicans scored the first overall pick of the 2019 NBA draft, their franchise had theoretically turned a corner. Zion Williamson seemed like the once-in-a-generation talent they needed to reach the next level. In reality, though, things have been a bit different.

Zion, of course, has barely played; he’s made more headlines with social media dunks than game-winning performances. At this point, it’s not quite clear what the future holds for either the big man or the Pelicans.

It’s in that context that we come to New Orleans’ win in the NBA Play-In Tournament, which puts them one victory away from the postseason. While the Big Easy is probably pretty happy with its team right now, Wednesday night’s performance does raise some more questions about Williamson.

CJ McCollum led the New Orleans Pelicans to a win over the Spurs

When the Pelicans traded for CJ McCollum in February, it seemed like a risky move. While no one doubted the guard’s talent, he didn’t exactly address New Orleans’ most glaring issues. With hindsight being 20-20, though, things have worked out.

Down the home stretch, the Pelicans did enough to reach the Play-In Tournament. As the ninth seed in the West, they hosted the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, April 13. With the season on the line, their new main man stepped up.

McCollum potted 32 points in the win, with 27 of those coming in the first half. He also dropped seven dimes and, according to coach Willie Green, was the stir that stirred the drink.

“We just got the ball to him, and he made play after play, score after score,” Green explained, according to ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. “The rest of the guys started to feed off CJ. He’s been in these moments. He’s played on the big stage. It’s no coincidence that he goes out and has the game that he has.”

Those other guys were Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas, who scored 27 and 22 points, respectively.

The Pelicans will now travel to Los Angeles for a date with the Clippers. The winner of that contest will enter the postseason as the Western Conference’s eighth seed.

The Pelicans will have to decide what to do with Zion Williamson, especially if they’re moving in the right direction

During his time in New Orleans, we haven’t seen much of Zion Williamson. When he’s played, the big man has seemed dangerous; the problem is keeping him on the court. Rumors have also swirled regarding his behavior within the organization, and whispers of potential trades have already started to surface.

While things aren’t too pressing on the business side of things — Zion will be under contract for at least 2023 thanks to a team option, and he’s about to become eligible for a rookie extension — there is a question of fitting the big man back into the lineup. Due to his absence, Williamson is almost like a new signing.

On the surface, the case for getting him back onto the floor is obvious. For all his flaws, the former Duke Blue Devil is a one-of-a-kind player. He’s built like a linebacker but moves like a man half his size. Even if his shooting leaves something to be desired, Williamson will have no problem holding down the paint, especially if Valanciunas (or someone similar, should he hit free agency) occupies the opposing center.

With that being said, though, the Pelicans’ recent performances could be cause for hesitation. Had they collapsed down the stretch or been blown out by San Antonio, it would be easy to say that Zion would make everything better. Instead, the team has pulled it together and shown something.

If you believe that the current squad is on the right track, Zion wants out of New Orleans, AND he’s a bad apple who’s only interested in his own brand, would it be worth the risk to welcome him back into the fold? Would you be better off trading him away for pieces that can supplement the McCollum-Ingram duo?

Now, consider that decision in light of some of the quotes that emerged after the Pelicans’ Play-In Tournament victory.

“This is the start of something special, for sure,” McCollum said, according to Lopez’s ESPN piece. “You see the energy. Feel the energy. My mother is in town; I have some family in town. When we go out to eat, you can feel the city is excited about basketball, as they should [be]. There’s a lot of talent here. We’re playing the game the right way. It’s going to be a lot of winning in our future.”

Ingram also shared similar sentiments. “It’s fun. It’s exciting. I don’t think I’ve ever been in Smoothie King where it was that many people in here,” Ingram said. “It shows how far we came, starting off 1-12. Having a chance to make the playoffs is a blessing. We just have to keep going, keep our focus. But I loved the energy in the Smoothie King Center.”

When you hear things like that, it’s hard to avoid juxtaposing them against Williamson potentially being a bad or, at the very least, disinterested teammate. Consider the James Harden trade; even if he made the Nets better on paper, Brooklyn felt like moving him would provide addition by subtraction and lighten up the locker room. Talent isn’t always the biggest factor.

With all of that being said, though, there are still plenty of moving parts. What do the Pelicans know about Zion’s long-term health? Has he given any indications that he won’t sign an extension? Those will obviously shape any organizational calculus. Two things, however, remains clear: the Williamson storylines aren’t going to go away, and the Pelicans are going to have to eventually make a tough decision regarding the forward’s future.

Until then, we wait.

RELATED: Zion Williamson Might Become This Summer’s Version of Da mian Lillard