Zion Williamson hasn’t even wrapped up his first NBA season, yet he’s already having a dramatic effect on the league. From a playing standpoint, the New Orleans Pelicans star has provided NBA fans with plenty of highlights. Thanks to Zion’s game-changing ability, the Pelicans went 28-36 before the coronavirus pandemic put the world on hold.
Currently, that would make Zion Williamson a spectator when the NBA playoffs roll around. But thanks to his immeasurable star power, the league may just find a way to ensure the No. 1 pick suits up in the postseason.
Zion Williamson is already one of the NBA’s biggest stars
Outside of LeBron James, there hasn’t been a more touted No. 1 pick to enter the NBA in the last two decades. That’s what happens when you become a YouTube sensation in high school. By the time Zion Williamson wrapped up his only season at Duke, he cemented his status as the best amateur basketball player in the country.
The Pelicans rightfully anointed the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder as the face of the franchise. Though a knee injury kept Williamson off the court until January, he didn’t disappoint once he made his debut. In his first NBA game, the left-hander dropped 22 points in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs. He took a few games to get his feet wet, but by February the real Zion Williamson emerged.
New Orleans turned around its season thanks to the consistent scoring dominance from its top pick. In 19 games, Williamson averaged 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting nearly 60 percent from the field. For comparison sake, Pascal Siakam ranks 15th in the league with the same scoring average.
Making his presence known on both ends of the floor, Williamson helped the Pelicans move up the standings. However, when the NBA halted its season, New Orleans still remained a few games away from qualifying for the NBA playoffs.
The NBA is considering making a massive change to its playoff format
As the current 10th seed in the Western Conference, the Pelicans wouldn’t make the playoffs under the NBA’s current format. However, thanks to their superstar rookie, that could change. NBA insider Brian Windhorst made a recent appearance on ESPN’s Get Up! and delivered some interesting news on how Zion Williamson could be the catalyst behind the league altering its playoff format.
“The league is going to set up this playoff plan to make sure Zion Williamson is involved,” Windhorst said. “I have to tell you, Greeny, paranoia is at the top of the list with anything in the NBA. This is the course of my 18 years covering the league. They’re always paranoid about everything. ‘The league is screwing me and they’re helping that guy.’ In this case, there’s a number of different reasons why the league would want to have 20 or 24 teams, a number of different reasons to get extra games. But most of those scenarios include having Zion Williamson in the postseason.
Surely having the No. 1 overall pick playing in the postseason would be a big boost for the league’s ratings. At the same time, it’s fair to question whether making a widespread change to accommodate a particular team is fair at all.
Can Zion and the Pelicans make a legitimate title run?
Let’s assume the league does find a way to get Zion Williamson and the Pelicans a playoff berth. Do they have a real shot at making it to the NBA Finals? It’s an interesting case study, as few believed New Orleans could make a dramatic turnaround in Zion’s first year.
However, even with their new star suiting up for less than a third of their regular-season games, the Pelicans still rank fifth in scoring at 116.2 points per game. Brandon Ingram turned his career around and made his first NBA All-Star team this season after averaging career-highs in points (24.3), rebounds (6.3) and assists (4.3). Veteran Jrue Holiday has chipped in 19.6 points per game while dishing out 6.9 assists per contest.
All of that said, the Pelicans don’t have a chance at capturing a title based on their horrific defense. New Orleans ranks 27th in points allowed per game (117.0). Under the bright lights of the playoffs, it’s difficult to imagine them containing Western Conference stars like LeBron, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard or James Harden.
We’ll have to wait and see if the NBA makes an unprecedented change to get the Pelicans in the playoffs. But the fact that Zion Williamson may be the reason behind it shows his incredible star power.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference