The New Orleans Pelicans Don’t Have Superstar Zion Williamson, But They Have Salvaged Their Season and Become an NBA Feel-Good Story

With superstar forward Zion Williamson stuck on the shelf with a foot injury that won’t seem to heal properly and a dismal 1-12 start to the season, the New Orleans Pelicans were predominantly given up for dead before the NBA calendar even made it to the second week of November.

Then, a funny thing happened for the Pelicans: They kept listening to the positive pep talks from rookie head coach Willie Green, started sharing the ball better, and they turned in a stirring resurgence to save their season.

Sure, New Orleans’ 13-22 record is nothing worthy of a parade down Bourbon Street — especially with Williamson still on the sidelines and not expected back any time soon. But, when you consider that the Pelicans are 12-10 since that horrific start to the season, it speaks volumes about the resilience and underrated level of talent on the New Orleans roster.

Following yet another miraculous comeback victory, the Pelicans have quickly become one of the best feel-good stories of this NBA season

Look no further than the New Orleans Pelicans’ latest on-court performance for a taste of the special sauce that the Pelicans have cooking these days. Playing without budding star Brandon Ingram and do-everything guard Josh Hart, the Pelicans fell into an almost unthinkable 23-point hole in the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Much like the poor start to the season, the Pelicans refused to surrender. Behind a career-best 26 points from surprising rookie Herb Jones and a flurry of four clutch 3-pointers from Garrett Temple, New Orleans rallied for a 108-104 defeat of the upstart Cavaliers. The rally from 23 points down was the second-largest come-from-behind victory in franchise history, according to ESPN.

“I’m extremely proud of this group. The effort, the togetherness of being down by 23 and fighting our way back into it and coming out with a win was huge,” Green said in Tuesday’s postgame news conference. “It’s unbelievable, the character with this group. … I’m proud of them, we stuck with it, and it’s next man up. We go into games believing we can give ourselves a chance if we take care of the basketball and share it.”

Consistently described as a “coach on the floor,” Willie Green has turned into an impressive coach on the sidelines with the Pelicans

Even if Green didn’t always know it, the coaches he played for throughout his 12-year journeyman NBA career always figured he would someday end up as a coach. During his final season as a player in Orlando in the 2014-15 season, Green found himself surrounded by 19- and 20-year-old players, and he ended up doing as much mentoring as he was playing.

“I was (in Orlando) at a time when we had a really young team, and I found myself helping out wherever I could, and it led to an opportunity to coach,” Green recalled last week in a pregame session with the media in Orlando. “I’m blessed and grateful for the platform.”

As soon as he retired as a player, Steve Kerr hired Green to fill a player development role on his Golden State coaching staff. After three years in that role, Green left for an assistant coaching role with Monty Williams in Phoenix, where that staff molded a young roster into one good enough to get the NBA Finals this past July.

“The biggest thing on our team right now is confidence, and that has a lot to do with Coach Green and him not getting down on guys,” said DeVonte Graham, who is averaging 14 points a game while knocking down three 3-pointers a night on average. “A lot of coaches, with that 1-12 start, would be panicking, and we could have gone left and stopped trusting each other. But he kept building us up.

“We’d come in every day, and the gym would be popping with music playing, and he kept saying, ‘Stick together, it’s going to turn around!’ Now, we recognize that and want to keep it going.”

Even without Zion Williamson, the New Orleans Pelicans still have plenty of firepower in Ingram, Valanciunas, and Hart

In sweet-shooting forward Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans have the closest thing to superstar forward Kevin Durant in the NBA other than the real thing starring in Brooklyn.

At 6-foot-9, Ingram can get off just about any shot that wants — even against the most rugged wing defenders. That is one reason averages 22.9 points per game while several 30-point efforts so far.

“B.I. does what B.I. does,” said Hart, who has been teammates with Ingram for the last five seasons while playing for the Lakers and Pelicans. “Nothing he does really surprises me because he’s been this kind of player — even back in L.A. Two years ago, he was an All-Star, last year he should have been an All-Star, and this year I think he should be one again.”

Valanciunas might have an all-star case too, while averaging 18.5 points and 12 rebounds a game. His physicality has helped the Pelicans weather the loss of Williamson, who electrified NBA fans last season while averaging 27 points and 7.2 rebounds a night.

The 21-year-old Williamson has already missed more games than he has played in during his stop-and-start NBA career. The 284-pounder received an injection in his foot to promote healing in the bone in mid-December, and the hopes are still there that Williams will be able to return to action after the NBA All-Star Game.

The Pelicans aren’t waiting around for Williamson’s return. After playing as well as they have over the past six weeks to dig out of a disastrous start, they know they are far from dead.

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