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New Orleans Pelicans

NBA Jam partners and why New Orleans Pelicans are building the perfect team around Zion Williamson

Who will be Zion Williamson's most intriguing running mate in 2019-20?
Who will be Zion Williamson's most intriguing running mate in 2019-20? (NBA.com illustration/Getty Images)

Welcome to NBA Jam week on NBA.com where all week long we're celebrating the remarkable collection of star duos throughout the NBA and viewing the upcoming season through the prism of what these duos mean entering 2019-20.

The New Orleans Pelicans defied the lottery odds and lucked into the most hyped prospect to enter the NBA since LeBron James, a skilled one-and-done big that proved to be by far the most electric game-changing talent in the college game and among the most physically gifted athletes to ever enter the league.

I am, of course, referring to 2012 when they moved up in the draft lottery for the rights to take Anthony Davis.

As the ensuing seven years played out, it became apparent that the Pelicans had essentially squandered their chance to build a winner around Davis as they won a grand total of one playoff series and advanced to the postseason twice.

Striking it big in lottery guarantees nothing. In many ways, that's the easy part. The hard part? Filling in the margins. New Orleans failed to do that with Davis and as a result, he wanted out. An in-season trade demand, healthy scratches, awkward in-game moments, removal from promotional materials ... none of it went down the way anyone involved would have wanted it to go down.

It was an embarrassing fiasco that could have - and some might argue SHOULD have - spelled doom for the fate of the franchise. But the timing alongside a fortuitous amalgam of circumstances has given the Pelicans a new lease on life and the ultimate mulligan.

With the Los Angeles Lakers desperate to beat out other offers for Davis so as not to risk wasting a dwindling championship window with an aging LeBron James, new Executive VP of Basketball Operations David Griffin was able to stand his ground, hold their feet to the fire and ultimately extract arguably the greatest haul ever received in a single trade.

They also entered free agency with copious amounts of cap space and the flexibility to chase essentially anyone they so pleased.

As luck would have it, that all just so happened to coincide with once again defying the odds in a year featuring a once-in-a-generation prospect in Zion Williamson.

Typically, No. 1 picks walk into situations that need more than just a little bit of elbow grease. But thanks to a perfect storm entirely out of his control, Williamson landed on a team primed to accentuate his best qualities from Day 1.

Let's fire up NBA Jam and run through all of the reasons why Zion's teammates will set him up for success.

The dependable veteran star

"This is Jrue Holiday's team."

With those five words spoken merely hours after Williamson was selected with the first overall pick, Griffin began the process of establishing a clear hierarchy meant not only to take pressure off the back of his 19-year-old franchise cornerstone, but also to establish a culture where unrealistic expectations wouldn't outweigh patience.

He may only be 29-years-old, but Holiday's an old soul that's been through it all both on and off the court. It's easy to forget but Holiday himself was once a 22-year-old All-Star on the Philadelphia 76ers before being flipped by Sam Hinkie to New Orleans as the centerpiece of the first major 'Trust The Process' transaction. He's lived through the rise and fall of the Anthony Davis era, battled back from the depths of ill-timed injury-riddled seasons that cut short his prime and took an indefinite leave in 2016 following the diagnosis of a brain tumor to look after his then-pregnant wife.

Out of all of that, Holiday's emerged on the other side as one of the NBA's most respected leaders.

He outdueled both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the Pelicans' win over the Blazers in the 2018 playoffs and is coming off the best individual season of his career during which he earned his second straight All-Defense selection and was one of just four players to average at least 21 points, seven assists and five rebounds per game. He did all of that amidst the trials and tribulations of an endlessly turbulent season and now that the Pelicans are unshackled from the distractions that derailed their 2018-19 season, there's every reason to believe Holiday could come back even better. Griffin has even gone so far as to say that Holiday should get some MVP buzz, likening his overall production and impact to that of Steve Nash when he won back-to-back MVP awards.

Nash, of course, milked every ounce out of his younger stars in Phoenix, most notably Amar'e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. He won those MVP awards not solely because he set the world ablaze with his own ridiculous talent, but in part thanks to an ability to elevate those around him. Holiday isn't in the same class as Nash as a playmaker and that's OK. He doesn't need to be as there are other ways that his unselfishness can manifest in maximizing Williamson's potential.

He can help foster good habits on D. He can empower Williamson as an offensive force. He can do all of the little things that nobody outside of the locker room sees but that happen each and every day. He's good enough to more than help carry the load, but not the type to feel threatened by Williamson's larger-than-life potential. He'll know when to take over the heavy lifting himself and he'll recognize those moments when it's time to encourage the young fella to go to work. Nobody is stepping on anyone's toes.

He's the perfect understated star to pair alongside a rookie phenom and far more accomplished than anyone that either Anthony Davis or LeBron James suited up alongside from the get go.

The cerebral playmaker

I'm a Believer in Lonzo Ball. Yes, that's a capital "B".

Look, I totally get the concerns, namely that my four-year-old nephew might be able to give him a run for his money at pop-a-shot. But have we really arrived at a place where the merits of any player's value boils down to whether or not they can shoot?

The last time I checked, there's far more to basketball than firing 3s and hitting free throws.

Like passing.

Some might say it's actually a pretty important skill and oh-by-the-way, it's something that Ball can do better than 99% of the NBA.

It's also something paramount to getting the most out of Zion Williamson.

Watch Ball play for even five minutes and it's painfully obvious to see that he knows his way around a basketball court. He's got a tremendous feel for the game and he sees plays unfold well in advance of anyone else. He's opportunistic in finding every opportunity to run and he rarely holds on to the rock for any longer than he needs to.

Now imagine him finding Zion.

During his one year at Duke, Williamson lit up the crowd every time he stepped foot onto a court. But for every instance of another viral highlight-reel dunk there were three or four missed opportunities where he's pointing with one finger up and calling for a lob to deliver a blow into the cracks of an imperfect rotation. Lonzo Ball isn't missing those chances and he's going to find Zion every time it's there.

But this isn't a one way street.

A vastly underrated part of Williamson's game is his own passing ability. Lost in the collective jaw-dropping bewilderment incited by his own finishes was his unselfishness and the degree to which he fed off the play of his teammates. Nothing excites him on the floor more than his own teammates flushing with authority.

He's not exactly Draymond Green but it's not hard to imagine him resembling Blake Griffin during the Lob City years. Did you know that during their last season together with the Clippers, DeAndre Jordan caught more alley-oops from Griffin than he did from Chris Paul?

Because defenders will be laying off of Williamson due to his own limitations as a shooter, he'll have unencumbered passing lanes to drop dimes of his own.

Enter Ball who has bounce on par with almost any other guard and loves cutting backdoor to punish sleep-walking defenders with alley-oop flushes.

Say what you will about their shooting struggles, but when it comes to uncovering every opportunity, it's hard to imagine a pairing more made for each other than Lonzo and Zion.

The low block sparring partner

50.1.

That's the field goal percentage allowed by Derrick Favors at the rim last season.

Care to guess where that ranked across the league?

...

...

...

(I'll wait)

...

...

...

1st.

Wait, what?

According to player tracking data available on NBA.com, Favors ranked ahead of all 265 other players that defended at least 100 shots at the rim last season, not bad for "the other big" in Utah that lived in the shadows of two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Favors doesn't block a ton of shots and is most certainly not your typical towering rim protector that moves everywhere to patrol the paint and deny anyone around the rim, but he's never mentioned in the same breath as the league's handful of noted defensive anchors.

While there will be stretches when the 6-foot-7 Williamson plays centre, he doesn't have great length to make up for lack of height and is more suited to play the four which makes finding a reliable rim protector that can slot next to him vitally important. He's not exactly Brook Lopez bombing away from downtown, but Favors is at the very least capable of offering some spacing on the other end of the floor to help open things up for Williamson to play his brand of bully ball on the block. That combination makes him the perfect complement and that's before even getting into Williamson's own defensive chops.

So let's do that, shall we?

Not only was he the consensus National Player of the Year at Duke, he very nearly won Defensive Player of the Year too as he was named among the four finalists. What he lacks in wingspan (6-foot-10) he more than makes up for with extraterrestrial athletic ability. He's a capable shot blocker that also loves to hop in passing lanes. Given his size and ability to close out on shooters, Williamson has all the tools to become an elite weakside and help defender that's capable of shrinking the floor in an instant.

In that regard, he's the exact opposite of Favors and their skills are aligned to cover for each other with Favors lingering as a last line of defence and Williamson the athletic marvel able to bring help in a moment's notice.

it might take some time and even still won't get near the attention it deserves, but watch out for the potential for some strong interior D in New Orleans.

The deadeye sniper

For the bull in a china shop routine to inflict maximum damage, there needs to be something which keeps opposing teams from sending five bodies in full riot gear into the paint to stop said bull.

Enter JJ Redick.

There aren't five better pure shooters in the world. And that's before bringing to light Redick's ability to rip the nets no matter how fast he's moving when he pulls the E-brake and careens around a pick or shoots off a dead sprint in transition. A Redick heat check is the NBA's equivalent to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Lol. Wut?

It's logical given the never-before-seen diaspora of star talent this offseason, but Redick's decision to sign with the Pelicans feels a bit too under-the-radar. For all the talk of how the Philadelphia 76ers will manage life without Jimmy Butler, the loss of Redick can't be understated.

Here's a stat to think about. In the 559 minutes that Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler played alongside Redick, they outscored opponents by 14.9 points per 100 possessions. Remove Redick from the equation and those three got worked, posting a net rating of -18.4 in almost 200 minutes. Not the biggest of sample sizes but that's a swing of over 33 points per 100 possessions.

And you wonder why all of us #NBATwitter nerds obsess about spacing (except of course when writing about how Lonzo Ball is still awesome).

Redick's going to open up everything for Williamson.

The dribble handoffs featuring Redick and Embiid that were unstoppable in Philly will be even scarier in New Orleans given Williamson's ability to put the ball on the floor and dunk everyone and everything into oblivion.

The Pelicans are going to ask a lot of Williamson and he's not going to have the workload of your average 19-year-old NBA rookie. Putting the ball in Williamson's hands and then having perhaps the NBA's very best off the move shooter to place in tandem is perhaps the greatest possible example of putting him in the best possible position to succeed.

But wait, there's more!

Worried about Lonzo and Zion flying up and down the floor? Redick will be happy to walk into more wide open uncontested 3s in transition than ever before, especially given head coach Alvin Gentry's love affair with running, running and running some more.

Of everyone that was on the free agent market this offseason, it's hard to imagine a better fit at the two guard than Redick. The precious cap space used on the veteran sniper will go down as money well spent.

The high upside relief valve

And then there's Brandon Ingram, arguably the most precious of the gemstones received in the treasure chest bounty for Anthony Davis.

Although he may have not exploded onto the scene in ways many suspected he might, Ingram still has a very real chance of developing into a lethal 25-a-night type scorer. Jrue Holiday is probably the favourite to lead the Pelicans in scoring, but don't sleep on Ingram doing it in his first year in New Orleans. The 22-year-old is coming off the heels of an odd season with the Lakers in which he averaged over 18 points per game on 50% shooting, but never quite found his role alongside LeBron James. Even when The King sat, Ingram often participated in a two-way tug-of-war for shots with Kyle Kuzma instead of getting in reps as a true No. 1 option.

Now free of the spotlight in Los Angeles, Ingram gets the opportunity to develop on his own terms and without the pressures of winning big right now. Given the attention paid to Zion, Ingram is now in a position where he can more freely find himself as an NBA player without the never-ending stream of questions about when he'll put it all together.

Ingram's the perfect relief valve for Williamson who might not be ready to dominate as a scorer from the jump. Neither are finished products in the slightest yet Ingram is far enough along as an isolation scorer and shot creator that he'll be able to step up in big spots to help carry the load.

Every rookie has those nights where it just isn't happening and Williamson will be no exception. It's those nights when having Ingram riding shotgun as a scorer will help Williamson work through the rigors of adjusting to the NBA.

More so than anyone else, Ingram is the piece that's most important when imagining what Zion Williamson and the Pelicans will look like in five years. Ingram's ceiling extends further than any of the other pieces surrounding the No. 1 pick and he could be the ultimate factor in the Pelicans not making the same mistake with Williamson that they did with Anthony Davis.

The Pelicans have been given a second chance.

And while the season hasn't even started, all signs point to a team that has no intention of squandering their golden ticket.

The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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