The trade deadline debris is beginning to settle, and there's basketball to be played again! Zion Williamson and the Pelicans (losers of three straight but generally very fun) are in town, and the hype is real. Here's what to expect:
Buzz… And a whole lot of it
Williamson is the greatest show on hardwood right now, after all.
“It’s just different,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said after the team’s Thursday morning shootaround. “I've been around a lot of guys, you know, obviously with Steph [Curry] and that group in Golden State and Blake [Griffin] and [the Clippers], and even David Robinson and guys like that, it's just a different vibe altogether with him.
“I can't explain it, I really can't. It really is a phenomenon,” Gentry continued. “That every city, we get to a hotel at 3:00 in the morning and there's 25-50 people out there that want his autograph.”
A sea of assorted media, prim and punctual for the visiting Pels’ AM shootaround, nodded along.
With the level of acclaim Williamson has already garnered comes burden — of fame, expectation, and responsibility — and no one would blame that burden for weighing heavy on the shoulders of a 19-year-old rookie. Gentry said he takes it in stride.
“This has kinda been his normal for the last two or three years, really, since his high school days, so he's accustomed to that,” Gentry said. “He's a really bright kid and understands the dynamic of the media, so it's not anything that's intimidating to him I don't think.”
To that point: After getting his shots up and warmups in, Williamson retreated to the Pelicans’ locker room for a few moments of respite. But when he re-emerged to face the press scrum awaiting him, he sauntered relaxedly, wearing a sly yet knowing grin across his face.
“I enjoy it,” he said of his media responsibilities (with a smile, of course). “I find it very funny.
“I just make it fun, ’cause if I hate it, then it's not gonna be any fun. But it does surprise me. You know, I always try to figure out why so many people care about me. I'm just a regular guy.”
According to Gentry, that brand of humility was instilled in Williamson by his parents. Williamson concurred.
“It's one of those things where, people might say 'oh, you had a great game' this, that. But, you know, when I get home, I know I'm gonna hear the opposite,” he said with a laugh.
“We don’t have to worry about that one,” Gentry said. “Trust me on that, okay? He’ll be grounded.”
Still, all signs point to Williamson deeming himself ‘just a regular guy’ being a bit of an understatement. Even beyond the poster dunks, grappling hook steals and feats of heroic strength, Williamson has been a productive basketball player for the Pelicans, even in the brief stretch since his debut — he's averaging 19.6 points and 8 rebounds (3.6 offensive) on 54.6% field goal shooting (44.4% from 3) in his seven games this season.
Specifically intriguing to tonight’s matchup with the Bulls will be how often the Pelicans look to deploy Williamson in small-ball units. They typically opt to start him at the four, and per Cleaning the Glass, Pelicans' lineups with Williamson at center own a 119.7 offensive rating and 94.9 defensive rating (good for a 100th percentile 24.9 net rating) in 76 possessions this season (small sample size alert, but still).
“It was a little adjustment, but I did it a little bit at Duke, and the comfort level with that is, it's basketball,” Williamson said of his comfort playing the five. “And I'm able to use my speed and strength to get by the bigs off the perimeter… So with that, it's just trying to find a mismatch within the group.
Attacking mismatches is already one of Williamson’s greatest skills. Across from with most any traditional center in the league, Williamson has proven adept scoring off the dribble, through contact, facing up and out of the post. One wrong twitch and you’re right where he wants you:
That's a man on a mission right there 😳 pic.twitter.com/AAKb4FeolG— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) February 5, 2020
Bulls coach Jim Boylen said yesterday that Thad Young will draw primary responsibilities on Williamson, but if he happens into a matchup with any of the Bulls’ traditional bigs, lookout. On the offensive glass (his second jump is ridiculous) and leading in transition, Williamson should be a handful, as well.
The Jordan connection
A small aside, but Williamson did add, of playing again in the house that Michael Jordan spent the mid- and late-1990’s rocking: “[Michael Jordan]’s been my favorite player while I've been growing up. You gotta respect the building, gotta respect what he's done for the game, obviously.”
That will endear him plenty to the Chicago faithful. As would another outing akin to the 29 points on 12-for-13 shooting when these teams squared off in the preseason.
And don’t worry about his toe
Williamson is dealing with a right toe sprain, which landed him on the team’s injury report Wednesday evening. The Pelicans later updated his status to ‘available’ and both he and Gentry appeared nonplussed when questioned about it.
“He's fine. It's not even open for discussion,” Gentry said.
“I just had a tiny bit of discomfort in it, nothing major. I'm fine,” Williamson added.
And of weight concerns?
“He's just coming back, you know, and he's played I guess seven or eight NBA games. I don't think anybody going to be in midseason form having played seven or eight NBA games,” Gentry said. “I'm fine with where he is and what he's doing and you guys gotta look past this thing that everybody talks about, his durability because of the size that he is or whatever, he's gonna be fine.”