Zion rising: Signing rookie extension could result in Pelicans’ golden era

The Pelicans are re-inserting a superstar into an established core, plus young draft talent
First-round draft pick Zion Williamson prepares for training camp with the New Orleans Pelicans.
First-round draft pick Zion Williamson prepares for training camp with the New Orleans Pelicans.(Chris Hagan)
Published: Jun. 28, 2022 at 9:28 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 28, 2022 at 9:42 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - When it comes to signing stars to big contracts in small markets like New Orleans, it’s understandable when fans can be apprehensive, particularly when a history of injury is involved.

The Pelicans are mostly already set in terms of offseason activity but there is one move they’ll have to make in the coming months that could determine the franchise’s fate for years to come. On Thursday (June 30), NBA free agency begins at 5 p.m. and Zion Williamson is eligible for a rookie deal max extension worth $180 million for five years.

Pelicans play-by-play announcer Todd Graffagnini said that he would be surprised if the deal gets done at exactly midnight but that fans likely won’t have to hold their breath for long.

“You know, they’ve gotta work out some deals, But the good news is it seems like both sides are on the same page,” said Graffagnini. “I know everybody has seen the pictures of Zion recently. He looks to be in fantastic shape. I know he’s been at the facility working out. You hope it gets done sooner rather than later. But I think Pelicans fans can breathe a sigh of relief that it is eventually going to happen.”

With no restrictions this summer, Zion is working on his public profile. He’s shown up in superhero shape, promoting the drop of his Zion 2 Jordan brand signature shoe, and connecting with communities around New Orleans.

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While there is a lot to be excited about with Zion returning, concerns about his longevity and impending price tag are legitimate. He missed significant time in his rookie season and all of the previous season with a right foot fracture.

However, in many ways, it’s a real shame that the 2020-21 season was one mostly without fans in the peak of COVID-19. Though the Pelicans lacked success as a unit that year, this “lost season” is Zion’s personal best. He was mostly healthy and went on a historic tear with an inferior roster compared to what the pelicans are now under coach Willie Green.

According to stats provided by NBA University online, Zion was the best finisher in the NBA at age 20 in 66 games in 2020. He was in the 96th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, 98th in post-ups, and 97th in isolation. Those are numbers that suggest that Zion dominated at elite levels in three major areas of the game, making him one of the rarest players in a season the league has ever seen.

Zion is a unicorn. He has the power, speed, and post moves of a young Shaquille O’Neal and midrange finesse and drive game of a young Michael Jordan, and we saw the best of it before he turned 21.

While bad contracts for hurt players hang over New Orleans like a Voodoo curse, data that shows the rarity that Zion is, and his potential to elevate an already quality team, make committing to the former 2019 No. 1 overall pick much more comfortable than a riverboat gamble.

“It’s not a big decision, it’s a pretty easy decision,” Pelicans VP David Griffin said of offering Zion a max extension on the Ryan Russillo Podcast. “The kid’s historically good when he plays ... this is a max player, that’s easy.”

A version of Zion at his best, and in certainly in the span of five years, makes this current Pelicans team contenders.

The options are limitless for the Pelicans who will likely roll out a starting five of C.J. McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Herb Jones, Zion, and Jonas Valanciunas. Zion will be like a vacuum of force into the paint whether he’s driving or posting up. His exceptional ball-handling and vision make him dangerous in the pick-and-roll with the ability to be the guy setting the screen or making the play on ball. The drive-dish option should create mismatches all over, particularly with two high-screen options for P&R that can be run with either Zion or Ingram. McCollum as a combo guard sets the table for a multitude of options. It’s like having an offense with three players with point guard capabilities.

Zion’s return should elevate and create opportunities for everyone, particularly defensive specialist Herb Jones, who will likely see more wide-open looks from the wing.

We also saw the Pelicans capitalize in games late last season by buying into defense that turns into points from fast breaks going the other way. The team doubled down on that mentality in the 2022 draft by taking defensive specialist Dyson Daniels from Australia and E.J. Liddell, a projected late-round guy that fell to the Pelicans in the second round. With Jose Alvarado, Larry Nance Jr., Trey Murphy III, Naji Marshall, and Devonte Graham all players that will have to fight for minutes in the second unit, it is easy to see this team as being its deepest in well over a decade.


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