Does anyone remember Zion Williamson? Strange as it sounds, he still exists most clearly in my mind as a cannonball at Cameron Indoor. Basketball Reference tells us that there have indeed been three professional seasons for Zion, but none of them have been able to dislodge the image of him in the clean white and blue from my mind, youthful explosiveness so undeniable that the shoes on his feet crumble when he steps. Teenage Zion made quite an impression.
While Williamson exists in amber in my memory, the team that employs him — no, not Nike, the New Orleans Pelicans — have been mired in 30-win muck down on the bayou for three straight seasons. The last time the Pels won more than 34 games, Jrue Holiday was still on the roster. Despite last year’s underwhelming 31-41 mark, there’s the unmistakable feeling that something is going on down here. Head Coach Willie Green seems to have it, and the roster is buying what he’s selling. Coming down south revitalized a stagnating CJ McCollum; Brandon Ingram continues his dance of steps forward and back and sideways and forward again; Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado walked out of the second round/undrafted realms and onto the floor ready to guard just about any living soul; JV is still a hulking bully with pretty soft touch — there’s sizzle here. The common understanding of momentum would lead us to believe that another step forward is coming, and that’s before you factor in the big fella’s return. What happens now that the team that pulling together to patch a hole finally gets the All-NBA piece back?
I have no idea, really, but I’ll sure as hell watch it.
Notables Out: None
Notables In: Dyson Daniels, Dereon Seaborn
|PG||CJ McCollum||Jose Alvarado||Devonte’ Graham||Dyson Daniels|
|SG||Brandon Ingram||Kira Lewis||Garrett Temple||Dereon Seaborn|
|SF||Herb Jones||Trey Murphy II||Naji Marshall|
|PF||Zion Williamson||Larry Nance Jr.|
|C||Jonas Valancuinas||Jaxson Hayes||Willy Hernangomez|
Guards and Wings
Change is a good thing, but don’t just take my word for it. Look at what a change of scenery did for CJ McCollum when the Blazer lifer came down Nawlins way for the last 26 games of the season:
- Blazer CJ — 20.5/4.3/4.5/1 on 43/38/70 shooting splits
- Pelican CJ — 24.3/4.5/5.8/1.3 on 49/39/66
It was an ideal circumstance to walk into for CJ, as much of the existing Pelicans backcourt was either hurt (Kira Lewis), unproven (Jose Alvarado), or proven ineffective (Devonte’ Graham.) McCollum left town having been a second banana for his whole career and stepped into a tailor-made role where his operating with the ball in his hands was the best option by far. Even with the added bump in counting stats, CJ finished the year as a top 50-ish player, territory that is hardly unfamiliar to him. Despite his history as a bucket-getter, McCollum’s efficiency has never been good, and though inexplicable to me, the FT% has been unsightly for three years running. A guard who’s below-average in both percentages will leave you with a bit of a problem when integrating him onto a lot of fantasy rosters, but the assists, points, and threes should hold up okay. New Orleans was good for McCollum’s steal rate, but considering his longer track record there, I’m not exactly sold. He seems safe enough as a sixth-rounder, but I could see the numbers slipping a bit with the return of big Z and the continued emergence of some of the supporting cast.
Speaking of that supporting cast, how much fun was Jose Alvarado‘s hounding of the Point God in last year’s postseason? As much joy as Grand Theft Alvarado was responsible for last season, he’s not going to be a fantasy viable player unless life gets really challenging in the Big Easy. There’s a great steal rate, sure, but there’s limited usage and little else that he brings to the table outside of a smattering of dimes. Similarly, after three consecutive seasons of dwindling playing time and output, the bloom has come off the rose for Devonte’ Graham. If there are minutes for Graham, I suppose there will also be some triples. There just won’t be enough of either to be viable.
Kira Lewis Jr., who never has been healthy enough to have much of a job to lose, might have just been Wally Pipped by New Orleans’ latest lottery pick Dyson Daniels. Lewis is still working his way back from shredding his knee last December, and the selection of Daniels can only be read as a turning of the page. The Aussie teenager was limited by an ankle injury in the preseason but generally looked good while he was out there. Over the offseason I remember hearing a Pelicans beat writer saying that Dyson would be taking someone’s job as early as this season, it was just a matter of time. My guess is it will be Devonte’ Graham who is the odd man out. Beyond playing time concerns, Graham was already off my radar, but I’m looking to acquire Daniels in dynasty formats. Dyson almost certainly won’t get enough run to be under consideration for streaming in the early season, but it could happen later. He’s bouncy.
Another look at that Dyson block 🤯 pic.twitter.com/6vHc5OHGrr
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) October 15, 2022
Brandon Ingram and his erratic fantasy output continue to vex me. I haven’t drafted him once this season (maybe ever?), mostly because I don’t feel like I have a good idea of what’s coming back to me if I do roster him. Sometimes there are threes, sometimes there are rebounds, sometimes there are steals — but only sometimes. The points and dimes are steady, but the FG efficiency also tends to wax and wane. Drafters begin considering him as early as the fifth round, but most of the time I feel more comfortable with waiting (or drafting Khris Middleton) and pursuing other options at forward. It seems totally possible that this is the year where BI really puts it all together and we get good rebounding, steals, and three-point shooting to go along with the more bankable stats, but it almost certainly won’t be happening on one of my rosters. Add in the bite Zion will make in usage and staying away gets easier and easier.
Herb Jones was a defensive revelation as he played his way into 69 starts as a second-round rookie. Stocks were the name of the game last season (1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks per) and if nothing else, I would expect steady defensive production from Jones again this year. As with all the other major pieces of the Pelicans rotation, Zion’s return will siphon off some of Herb’s already minuscule usage rate (13.9% last year.) It’s hard to see where exactly the improvement comes from Jones as a sophomore, especially with so many better options on the court offensively. I’d take Herb if I needed a defensive superhero, but my expectations are already in check for any production beyond that.
Perhaps not for the standard 12-team league draft, but keep an eye on what happens with Trey Murphy III. A deadeye from deep as a rookie last year, Murphy has had a strong preseason and the additional spacing that he offers should be all the more important with the return of Williamson and the defensive attention his presence in the paint will attract. A strong start to the season could make him a priority add early.
It’s all about health for Zion Williamson. In the phenom’s one full season he was knocking on the door of an All-NBA team on the back of 27 points, 7.2 boards, 3.7 dimes, 0.9 steals, and 0.6 swats. A scoring beast, he’s presently healthy and could be a steal in the fourth (or third) round of fantasy drafts if he can stay on the floor and some of the defensive stats tick up. Williamson possesses elite FG% and points upside, and if you’re punting FT% and can find the defensive stats later as an insurance policy, it wouldn’t be a shocker if Zion’s on a lot of championship teams. There’s a risk to go along with the tremendous upside, of course, but in the right build, Zion makes a lot of sense at this price. It might be the last year that you’ll be able to get him at this value. I could be buying.
Add Jonas Valancuinas’ name to the list of Pelicans who could see their numbers erode a bit with the return of Williamson. JV averaged 30+ MPG for the first time in his career last season and posted beefy big-man stats with the opportunity. A career-best 17.8 points per game, 11.4 boards, and strong percentages powered Jonas to a top-50 finish. There aren’t a ton of blocks to be had here, and I would expect the gaudy points and boards totals to dip in response to Zion’s return, but JV feels like a rock-solid center and a good bet to be in the neighborhood of the top-50 again — just make sure to get your swats somewhere else.
Larry Nance Jr. and Willy Hernangomez could both be in line for decent usage should Williamson return to street clothes, but I don’t think they need to be prioritized as long as the roster is intact. Unfortunately, fourth-year big man Jaxson Hayes was unable to escape the preseason unscathed, suffering a torn UCL in his non-pitching elbow. At the time of writing, he’s rehabbing and slated for a re-evaluation once the season gets rolling, but surgery is definitely in play here. A UCL tear is what kept Paul George on the sidelines last year, so a lengthy absence for Hayes is definitely on the table.