30 Teams in 30 Days: Retooled Pelicans, healthy Zion Williamson set to team up

It was all smiles for Zion Williamson and David Griffin at June’s extension announcement. Can a healthy Zion amplify the Pelicans’ rise?

New Orleans Pelicans

2021-22 record: 36-46

Key additions: Dyson Daniels, EJ Liddell & Karlo Matkovic (2022 draft)

Key subtractions: None

Last season: It was a tale of two seasons for the Pelicans, who overcame a dreadful 3-16 start and all the gloomy forecasts that followed before flipping the script, finishing strong and reaching the playoffs via two Play-In Tournament wins. Then they gained respect in a prickly first-round playoff series by taking the 64-win Phoenix Suns to six games. All of this was done without Zion Williamson, who missed the entire season with a right foot injury. Brandon Ingram stood tall and the midseason trade for CJ McCollum brought in a solid co-scorer, while a batch of scrappy young players carved out names for themselves.

Summer summary: The biggest and most encouraging news to emerge from New Orleans this offseason didn’t pertain to free agency, a trade or the 2022 draft. After months of weird signs, whispers and strange speculation, Williamson pledged his allegiance to the Pelicans — or maybe he just didn’t want to be the first No. 1 pick in NBA history to reject the rookie max — by agreeing to a five- year extension in the Big Easy.

Williamson said all the right things, there were plenty of smiles after he grabbed the pen, and all was hunky-dory between the franchise player and the franchise. His initial silence on the matter fed and led to unanswered questions and the small possibility he might plan an exit strategy. It’s not like the Pelicans have been — cough cough Anthony Davis and Chris Paul — burned in the past, right? It’s all moot now as the Paul Bunyan of the NBA is ready to resume what has been, to this point, a chronically interrupted yet very bright career.

He has missed 141 games in his three seasons and essentially existed as a ghost. Whenever there were fleeting sightings of Williamson on the court, well, that’s another story. The power, the explosiveness, the gentle touch around the rim and the improving shot-making away from the paint made him a high-level talent, and he’s just 22.

The best thing the Pelicans ever did in their time in New Orleans was extending Williamson. The next-best thing? They made enough moves to give Williamson a reason to ink the deal. As he sat in street clothes last season, he saw the transformation of a club that began to play with a purpose. All credit to David Griffin, the club’s executive vice president, who fortified this team with a bunch of first-round picks (from the Davis and Jrue Holiday trades) and swung deals (for McCollum and Larry Nance) and found some uncut gems (foremost among them second-rounder Herbert Jones and undrafted fan favorite Jose Alvarado).

Zion Williamson and New Orleans look ready to contend in the West.

Young, first-time coach Willie Green never became unraveled after last season’s poor start and shined in the postseason with his decisions, playing rotations and strategy.

So, yeah, getting a commitment from Williamson was No. 1 on the priority list … and also Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Because the Pelicans made the multi-player midseason trade for McCollum in 2021-22, they chose to keep the roster intact to see how the pieces fit alongside a healthy Williamson. Though that’s not to suggest the Pelicans were inactive in the offseason.

They used their first-round pick on Daniels (No. 8 overall) and took Liddell (No. 41) and Matkovic (No. 52), too, proving New Orleans is stockpiling young players to see who develops into an asset worth keeping or packaging in future trades.

Daniels is among the growing number of Australian-born players (to American men who went there to play professionally) whose development and potential allowed them to get drafted into the NBA. He doesn’t turn 20 until next spring, has good size (6-foot-7) and a decent handle. He played with the NBA G League Ignite last season and dropped positive hints.

Liddell starred at Ohio State, the rare NBA-drafted player to stay three years; as a junior, he averaged 19.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in 2021-22. Liddell plays bigger than his height (6-foot-7) and brings an NBA body. However, he underwent knee surgery in July after a mishap in the Las Vegas Summer League and could miss most (if not all) of the 2022-23 season.

In that sense, Liddell will have a soft shoulder to lean on. Williamson knows something or two about a career false-started because of injury. Throughout it all, the Pelicans were adamant about keeping him — not that they had much of a choice — and lucky for the franchise, the feeling was mutual.

Up next: Oklahoma City Thunder | Previously: San Antonio Spurs

> 30 teams in 30 days: Complete schedule

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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