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Pelicans enhance long-term outlook with Zion Williamson, shakier on present with him

Pelicans big Zion Williamson

ORLANDO, FL - JULY 10: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks on during practice as part of the NBA Restart 2020 on July 10, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

No more pretending the Pelicans aren’t Zion Williamson’s team.

Williamson – a 20-year-old who has played 24 career games – is New Orleans’ longest-tenured player.

That’ll make him the youngest longest-tenured player to open a season in NBA history. The previous record-holder: Brandon Ingram (21 years old) with the 2018-19 Lakers.

What does building around Williamson mean? That’s more complicated. The Pelicans both traded a very good player (Jrue Holiday) primarily for draft picks and hired a coach (Stan Van Gundy) who prioritizes the present.

Reading between the lines: New Orleans is calling on Williamson and its other young players to grow up quickly.

Brandon Ingram did that last year. Sent to the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ingram was denied his desired max-contract extension. He then became an All-Star, won Most Improved Player and got his max deal from New Orleans in restricted free agency.

Williamson and Ingram form a heck of a one-two punch to build around. They offer a long runway.

Which is why the Pelicans could jump on a great (desperate?) offer from the Bucks for Holiday. New Orleans got three first-round picks and two pick swaps. If Giannis Antetokounmpo leaves Milwaukee, those unprotected 2025 and 2027 picks and 2024 and 2026 swaps could be extremely valuable. Antetokounmpo could easily stay and help the Bucks send a couple picks in the late 20s. But the upside is tantalizing.

The Pelicans’ path to a super team: Williamson and Ingram continuing to grow and those Bucks picks turning into another star either by landing high in the right lottery or via trade.

But New Orleans isn’t just waiting for a distantly bright future. Van Gundy will demand more defensive accountability (and maybe even better conditioning). He’s a win-now coach who won’t let Williamson slide in all the ways the talented big did last year.

Not that the Pelicans are just demanding Williamson and their other young players to sink or swim under Van Gundy.

New Orleans flipped a first-round pick, two second-round picks, George Hill (a good, though older, player) and other filler to the Thunder for Steven Adams. Adams replaces Derrick Favors (who left for the Jazz) as the crutch center next to Williamson. Though Williamson works best offensively when surrounded by floor spacers, he just can’t hold up defensively yet at center. Adams will do the dirty work in the meantime.

Not only was the cost of trading for Adams high, the Pelicans also gave the 27-year-old a two-year, $35 million extension. That’s not great value for someone whose fit is a necessary evil at best.

The Holiday trade also brought Eric Bledsoe to New Orleans. The Bucks needed to upgrade to Holiday for the playoffs. But for a team just trying to reach the postseason, the Pelicans don’t face an extreme drop to Bledsoe. He’s a good regular-season player thanks to his defense and driving.

Still, the Pelicans’ total could be less than the sum of their parts. An expected Lonzo Ball-Eric Bledsoe-Brandon Ingram-Zion Williamson-Steven Adams starting lineup is extremely lacking in outside shooting/spacing. Maybe J.J. Redick (a Van Gundy favorite from their time with the Magic) or Josh Hart will start.

New Orleans has plenty of depth, including No. 13 pick Kira Lewis (a fine selection) and newly signed cheap big-man specialists Wenyan Gabriel (defensive) and Willy Hernangomez (offensive). That could be important in a compressed season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pelicans are trying to establish a culture, which can best be done through winning. They have a chance.

I’m even more impressed with how they strengthened their long-term asset base.

Offseason grade: B