Zion Williamson has come back strong from a three-game absence due to a foot contusion and just had his most dominant game of the season in the New Orleans Pelicans’ 129-110 win over the San Antonio Spurs.
The 6’6 forward scored 32 points on an impressive 14-of-18 field goal shooting while also recording 11 rebounds, an assist, two steals, and a block.
There was no stopping Williamson around the basket as his athleticism and physicality overwhelmed the Spurs’ interior defense. Out of his 18 shot attempts, 16 of them came inside the paint and all 14 of his makes were within a few feet of the rim.
The only blemish in his statline was his four-of-eight free throw shooting, though he has already shown some improvement in this aspect with a 71.7% clip this year versus his 68.7% career average.
Williamson, whose averages of 22.3 points, six rebounds, 3.9 assists, and one steal are modest when compared with his numbers in ‘20-’21, is beginning to rediscover his form after an understandable slow start to this campaign. This is crucial given that it is he, despite the presence of Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum, who will ultimately determine the ceiling of this Pelicans team.
The explosiveness and strength of Williamson set him apart from any other player in the league and these traits have made him a dynamic force on the court. He is practically impossible to contain one-on-one and a second defender is a necessity when he is going downhill. The adjustments that opposing defenses have to make for him inevitably frees up his teammates as seen in their win over the Spurs.
With Wiliamson dominating inside, it allowed New Orleans’ starting center Jonas Valanciunas to hover around the perimeter. This opened him up for a season-high four three-pointers and he was able to finish with 22 points on nine-of-11 field goal shooting. Reserve guard Devonte’ Graham thrived as well, converting six three-pointers en route to 21 points off the bench.
These two players play a crucial role as two of the few shooters on this Pelicans team that is devoid of three-point threats relative to the typical roster in today’s NBA. New Orleans makes an average of 11.5 three-pointers per game this season, good for 20th in the league, yet that number will only increase as Williamson regains his confidence and his responsibilities on offense grow.
The playmaking duties of Williamson have yet to fully return to what it was prior to his injury, but this should pick up as he settles in. The duo of McCollum and Ingram stand to benefit the most from this. It will allow them to manage their ball-handling load and playing off-ball more often will open them up for easier scoring opportunities.
This iteration of the Pelicans, sans Williamson, was already successful in the second half of the year where they made a late push into the first round of the playoffs. Now, with the Duke product back on board, they look like they are ready to take another leap. New Orleans is currently second in the Western Conference with a 11-7 win-loss record after winning five of their last six games.
A playoff berth will no longer come as a shock and anything less than a second round appearance might be taken as a disappointment. Williamson is a generational talent surrounded by two capable scorers which is a deadly recipe once the playoffs roll in.
A surprise run to the Western Conference Finals, similar to the Dallas Mavericks last year, could very well be in the cards for this team. In the end, it will all depend on Williamson and his health as it is only his awe-inspiring presence that can elevate this team from good to great.