Family focus: How the Currys are leading the second generation of NBA athletes

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NBC Sports

Family focus: How the Currys are leading the second generation of NBA athletes

This year’s All-Star Weekend in Charlotte will be a family affair, a celebration of House Curry, if you will.

Stephen Curry will participate in the 3-point contest with his brother, Seth, a guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, marking the first time that brothers will compete together in the marquee event. Not only that, the Currys will let it fly in the same city where the two grew up. Their father Dell, currently an analyst for the Hornets broadcast team and a two-time 3-point shooting contest participant himself, was part of the original Charlotte Hornets team and retired as the franchise’s career scoring leader. On Sunday, before the All-Star Game, the NBA will honor Dell at an event for his contributions on and off the court.

Make no mistake about it, the Curry family is NBA royalty and this is their homecoming. Stephen is the two-time MVP and three-time NBA champion who currently leads the NBA in 3-pointers per game (5.1). Seth, now in his fifth season, leads the NBA in 3-point percentage, making a blistering 47.5 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. 

Fans are obsessed with their every move. Seth’s Instagram account has 1.7 million followers, more than any MLB or NHL star. Meanwhile, Steph led the league in jersey sales for a third-straight season and boasts more Instagram followers than the top-three most-followed NFL stars, Odell Beckham Jr., Tom Brady and Cam Newton, combined. 

While the Currys changed the game of basketball by weaponizing the 3-point shot like never before, they’re also the most prominent faces in a fascinating trend. A wave of second-generation NBA players has flooded the league in recent years. This season, there are 27 sons of NBA players, including Steph, Seth, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Devin Booker, Domantas Sabonis and Justise Winslow, among others.

The Currys are the patriarchs among a growing family of patriarchs. These days, the term “NBA family” takes on a new meaning.

* * *

As Stephen, Seth and Dell act as official and unofficial hosts this weekend in Charlotte, they’ll also serve as reminders of the father-son dynamic infiltrating the league’s elite.

In the All-Star Game itself, Stephen will be joined by fellow second-generation player Thompson (father Mychal won two titles with the Lakers). Booker, son of former NBAer Melvin, will join Seth and Stephen in the 3-point contest after winning last year’s event. Sabonis (the legendary Arvydas is his father) and Jaren Jackson Jr (father Jaren played 12 seasons in the NBA) will be featured in the Rising Stars game. Al Horford and Kevin Love, though not chosen to participate this year, are All-Star mainstays who are also second-generation NBA players. 

That doesn’t even illustrate the full scope of this familial phenomenon. That list of 27 does not count Rising Star participant and Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen and his father, Leonard, who was drafted 50th overall by the Dallas Mavericks in 1985 but played professionally in Spain instead. JaVale McGee’s mother, Pamela, was the No. 2 overall pick in the WNBA’s 1997 draft and his father George Montgomery was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1985 draft but never played in the NBA. Also outside that 27: Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, whose fathers played pro basketball in Australia, and Luka Doncic, whose father, Sasa, played pro ball in Slovenia. 

Both of Lonzo Ball’s parents played college hoops and his father, LaVar Ball, once signed with the New York Jets as a defensive end. The Knicks’ Kevin Knox is actually Kevin Knox II; his father played in the NFL. Marvin Bagley III is the grandson of two-time All-Star (Jumping) Joe Caldwell and the son of Marvin Jr., who played pro football in the AFL. Lauri Markkanen’s father, Pekka, played pro hoops in Europe after playing for coach Roy Williams at University of Kansas. Lauri’s mother, Riika, played basketball for the Finnish national team. Dirk Nowitzki’s mother, Helga, once played basketball for the German national team while his father Jörg-Werner was an elite handball player. 

The Currys aren’t even the only active NBA brothers with a father who played in the league; Jerami and Jerian Grant are the sons of former NBAer Harvey Grant, who is the twin brother of All-Star and four-time champion Horace.

All these familial links may seem obvious. Height is the leading predictor of NBA players and that’s a genetically-linked trait passed on through DNA. In 2016, the Wall Street Journal found that nearly half of NBA players were related to current or former elite athletes. Giants tend to produce giants, after all. Not only that, but the pool of potential NBA fathers only gets larger over time.

But this latest boom seems extraordinary. The arrival of Curry in 2009 coincided with an influx of NBA sons. In 2008-09, the list was only 10 names long. During Stephen’s rookie season, in 2009-10, he led a group that grew to 16, the most the league had ever seen. The next season, two more. Another three the following year. By 2014-15, it ballooned to 27 players, where it currently stands.

There may be more on the horizon. Oregon center Bol Bol, son of the late Manute Bol, is one of the top prospects in the 2019 Draft. LeBron “Bronny” James Jr., is still in eighth grade, but he has reportedly received an offer from Duke University already and could reach the NBA right around the time his father turns 40 years. Dwyane Wade’s son, Zaire, has already been offered a scholarship by Nebraska as part of the class of 2020. Shareef O’Neal, the son of Shaquille, is at UCLA but sitting out the season with a heart ailment. Cole Anthony, the son of Greg, is the No. 2 prospect of the 2019 class on ESPN’s 100 and Trayce Jackson-Davis (son of Dale Davis) checks in at No. 25.  Scotty Pippen Jr., Kenyon Martin Jr., DJ Rodman (short for Dennis Rodman Jr.) are all highly-touted prospects coming through the pipeline.

Nature is certainly a big part of the boom, but nurture could also play a pivotal role. More specifically: Follow the money. The NBA’s business skyrocketed in the 1990s with Michael Jordan and the globalization of the game. In Dell Curry’s first season, the NBA’s salary cap stood at $4.9 million. By the time he retired in 2001-02, it had grown to $42.5 million. It stands to reason that NBA players became substantially richer and therefore, able to provide more resources for their children -- access to trainers, gyms and specialists -- to pursue basketball as a profession. 

I asked Brent Barry, the vice president of basketball operations for the San Antonio Spurs who played 14 seasons in the NBA, if he could offer up any insight. He and his two brothers, Jon and Drew, both played in the NBA, following in the footsteps of his Hall-of-Fame-father Rick.

Brent first pointed out the fundamental role of genetics, but he also made a point to emphasize his mother, Pam. She is the daughter of NBA player Bruce Hale, which makes Brent a third-generation NBA player of sorts.

That’s when it hits: Does the rise of the father-son NBA combo have more to do with the mother’s side? The 1990s saw a boon for high-level female athletics. In 1991, the International Olympic Committee made a ruling that all new sports applying for Olympic recognition must include female competitors. Women’s soccer and softball became Olympic sports leading into the 1996 Games in Atlanta. The WNBA debuted in 1997, roughly around the same time as the current influx of NBA sons were born. 

David Epstein, author of the New York Times best-selling book “The Sports Gene,” is an expert on the role of nature vs. nurture in athletics. He agrees that genetics are the integral part of the rise of father-son NBA players. 

“You have the sons who have potential, the fathers with means and knowledge, and the high desire to follow in dad's footsteps,” Epstein says. “You have a perfect storm of convergence.”

Though he hasn’t studied this particular finding, he hypothesizes that there are more athletic parent couples than ever before. The athletic supercouples like the McGees, Nowitzkis and Markkanens are becoming more and more the norm.

"Women haven't really had many sports opportunities for very long at all,” Epstein said. “You could argue there's a lot more opportunity for elite athlete couples to form than in the past. I'd guess it will only become more common as women get more athletic opportunities."

Seth and Stephen’s father may have been an NBA sharpshooter, but their mother, Sonya, played collegiate volleyball at Virginia Tech and also led her high school basketball team to two state championships. Sydel Curry, Stephen and Seth’s sister, followed her mother’s footsteps and played Division I volleyball at Elon University. (Speaking of supercouples, she wedded Golden State Warriors reserve guard Damion Lee last year).  

The Plumlee brothers (Mason, Marshall and Miles) all reaching the NBA makes more sense when you find out their parents, Leslie and Perky, both played college basketball (Purdue and Tennessee Tech, respectively). Boris Diaw’s mother, Elisabeth, is in the French Basketball Hall of Fame while his father was a former Senegalese high-jump champion.

It’s tempting to focus on the father-son combos of NBA royalty, but the role of both parents, just like with the Currys, must be fully appreciated.

* * *

Twenty-seven years ago, Stephen Curry watched his father compete in the family’s first 3-point shooting contest. It was the 1992 NBA All-Star Weekend, Vanilla Ice was the halftime act, and Dell was a sharpshooter for the budding Charlotte Hornets, a franchise born the same year as Stephen. 

Stephen, just three years old at the time, was there on the sidelines with his father, getting a front-row view. He even sat on Dell’s lap during the contest and watched basketball greats like John Stockton and Drazen Petrovic compete against his father.

Nearly three decades later, Stephen continues to cement his family’s status as NBA royalty. 

In October, after Stephen scored 29 points, Stephen and Dell surpassed Donny and Dolph Schayes as the second-most points of any father/son combination in NBA history. The Currys (not counting Seth) now have 28,420 points between them and only Kobe and Joe Bryant’s total of 38,895 points stand in front of them.

One day, the Currys may well surpass the Bryants as the leading father-son combo. But even if they get there, the Currys might not hold that title for long. Their father-son successors could be in Charlotte, lurking on the All-Star sidelines, just like Stephen and Dell 27 years ago. 

With the Currys hosting the NBA, the All-Star Weekend in Charlotte is certainly a family affair. If current trends hold, the notion of Team LeBron, in time, may be more than an All-Star Weekend moniker.

Kobe Bryant leaves behind lasting, unbelievable legacy

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Kobe Bryant leaves behind lasting, unbelievable legacy

This is the darkest day in the NBA since I began covering the sport a decade ago. 

Kobe Bean Bryant, 41, and his daughter Gianna (Gigi), 13, died aboard a fatal helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, NBA commissioner Adam Silver confirmed in a statement.

Bryant will go down as one of the best players who ever played basketball. But more respected? Maybe Michael Jordan can rival Bryant in that category. Maybe. Certainly not in Los Angeles. You don’t get bigger than Kobe. 

LeBron James, in Lakers purple-and-gold, passed Bryant for third all-time in scoring in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, in the city where Bryant was born and went to high school. After the game, James was struck by the poetic circumstances.

"I'm just happy to be in any conversation with Kobe Bryant, one of the all-time greats to ever play," James said.

Kobe Bean Bryant is the closest thing the NBA has to religion. He won five NBA championships in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform -- right there beneath the Hollywood sign -- which is the surest way to gain immortality in the basketball world. His career was defined by toughness, longevity and brilliance on the court.

There were so many things about Kobe’s career arc that seemed surreal, like a Hollywood screenwriter drunkenly went off the rails with the script. But it was real life, a storyline befit for the silver screen.

Bryant made his Lakers debut less than three months after his 18th birthday. He never wore another jersey ever again, retiring in that same purple-and-gold 20 seasons later with 33,643 points to his name.

In 2006, he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, the most by any guard in NBA history. Better than Michael Jordan’s best. After accounting for scoring pace across eras, the numbers show that Bryant’s 2005-06 season was the best scoring season ever.

In the final game of his career, he scored 60 points on his home floor. He made his last nine shots of the game (four coming from the free throw line) in front of those who had watched him do that so many times over the previous two decades.

When Kobe tore his Achilles tendon in the middle of the game back in 2013, he calmly walked -- yes, walked -- to the free throw line and made two free throws with the largest tendon in his body rolled up in a ball by his ankle. His free throws splashed through the net unaffected by the trauma to his leg.

He played in 18 All-Star games and was named to 15 All-NBA teams. He finished top-five in the MVP vote for all but one year in a 12-season reign from 2001-02 to 2012-13, winning the award outright in 2007-08 when he averaged 28.3 points for top-seeded Lakers in the West. No one has ever won more championships in a Lakers uniform -- Bryant’s five titles in Los Angeles is tied for most with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, Magic Johnson and Derek Fisher.

He is the closest proxy to Michael Jordan that we may ever see. The size, the grace, the fadeaways, the winning. Even down to the way he talked, it seemed Bryant was always this generation’s Jordan.

Bryant wasn’t short on drama. He demanded a trade from the Lakers in 2007 that ended up falling through and the Lakers netted Pau Gasol, a key to their back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. Of course, the soap opera between Shaq and Kobe in the early 2000s was fit for a Hollywood stage and even has its own Wikipedia page, complete with 159 citations. Any bad blood Kobe had with Shaq didn’t last long. Bryant on Sunday morning was checking in with Shaq’s son, “You good fam?”

The drama drew Bryant in. When it comes to clutch performers, no one carried more prestige in the post-Jordan era than Bryant. According to Basketball Reference’s shot database that dates back to the 2000-01 season, no one made more shots to tie or go-ahead in the final 24 seconds of a fourth quarter or overtime than Kobe Bryant. He took 160 of these shots since 2000-01, making 47 of them (29.4 percent; league average is 27.7 percent). He retired four years ago and still holds the 21st-century record. LeBron James just trails behind him, making 38-of-128 (29.7 percent) such shots.

It’s fitting that Bryant holds the record for most misses in NBA history. He was never afraid to take the shot, no matter how many players were guarding him. Bryant’s prime existed before modern-day shot-tracking technology could quantify shot difficulty, but he surely was tops in the league in that category, too. 

Bryant’s life wasn’t spotless. The 2003 Eagle, Colorado incident in which he was accused of sexual assault by a hotel employee will always be a chapter in his life story. The accuser dropped charges after failing to testify, but later filed a civil lawsuit that was settled privately. Until then, Bryant held a pristine image inside and outside the sport, with names like McDonald’s, Nike and Sprite lining up to be associated with him.

Over the years, Kobe cultivated a strong, nearly cultish, following through his self-marketing. He nicknamed himself The Black Mamba, in honor of an extremely venomous and fast African snake, and built the Mamba Academy in his name. Bryant packed a vicious bite with his teammates, chewing out his teammates in legendary fashion, as former teammate Brian Shaw will attest. Bryant never shied away from the moment and made the most of it. Michael stuck out his tongue; Kobe jutted out his jaw. 

When the text messages filled my phone alerting me about news of Bryant’s shocking death, I couldn’t stop thinking about his daughters. The basketball side of his life, that could wait.

There’s a good chance you know about his daughters already, because Kobe was not just one of the most visible basketball players ever -- he’s one of the most visible fathers the game has seen. His Instagram account is filled with photos of his daughters. Like, this one seven days ago. No caption. Just a photo of his daughter wearing Dad’s jersey. Or this one, of his family dressed as Wizard of Oz characters for Halloween. His Instagram is a scrapbook of fatherhood and father-daughter pride.

Perhaps my emotions were playing with me a bit because I found out about Kobe’s death while holding my four-month-old daughter in my arms, shattering a day that, until that moment, was brimming with love. Hours earlier, I celebrated my oldest daughter’s third birthday with her friends. I thought about how lucky I was to see her smile and witness this moment. My grandfather passed away suddenly when my father was 2 years old. The third birthday hit a little differently for me.

And now it’ll hit differently for another reason. Even as I type this, the backspace is getting extra work because my hands shake as I think about Bryant in those last moments with his daughter Gigi and what he told her.

Little of this feels real. Little of this makes sense. That was often the case with Bryant. The scoring, the winning, the Achilles, the 60-point final act -- Bryant’s story would hardly be believed if it didn’t happen. Right up until his tragic passing.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Pelicans' Zion Williamson looks every bit the superstar in NBA debut

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Pelicans' Zion Williamson looks every bit the superstar in NBA debut

We waited, and then we waited some more. In one of the most highly-anticipated regular-season game in years, Zion Williamson made his debut for the New Orleans Pelicans against the San Antonio Spurs three months after undergoing surgery to address a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. Though he played for the first three quarters, we didn’t see Zion be Zion until the fourth quarter.

And boy, was it worth the wait. Williamson went nuclear in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 straight points in the final frame on 6-of-8 shooting, including 4-for-4 from 3. He became the first player in NBA history to make more than three 3-pointers without a miss in his NBA debut, per Basketball Reference. It was the most thrilling three-minute stretch of basketball all season and I’m sure there were plenty of well-rested people waking up with regret this morning.

For the game, the 19-year-old finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists in just 18 minutes. This, after coming off a monstrous preseason in which he averaged 23.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game on 75.5 percent shooting on 2s and 25 percent shooting on 3s.

On its own, this was everything the Pelicans and the NBA could have asked for in a debut. The slow build made the fourth quarter that much more enjoyable to witness. But in the bigger picture, there’s a lot to unpack after Wednesday’s explosion.

Here are three takeaways on my mind as I watched Zion’s debut.

Upgraded Blake Griffin is Zion’s real comp

Williamson’s other-worldly combination of skill, strength and springs has generated an endless stream of player comparisons from Charles Barkley to Larry Johnson to Bo Jackson. But the one that stands out to me most these days is Blake Griffin -- an upgraded hybrid of Lob City Griffin and Point Forward Griffin.

Just like Williamson, Griffin faced a litany of knee problems at Williamson’s age. As an electric high-flying teenager at Oklahoma, Griffin suffered a sprained MCL in his freshman season in one knee and months later, tore his meniscus in his other knee, requiring arthroscopic surgery to remove the torn cartilage. That’s nearly a carbon copy of Williamson’s past year. 

But there’s an important difference between the two No. 1 overall picks. When Griffin underwent arthroscopic surgery, he missed less than a week. You read that correctly. In a 2013 interview about Derrick Rose’s torn meniscus, Griffin said that, under the watch of the Oklahoma Sooners, he “had surgery on Sunday and played on Saturday.” 

Williamson, on the other hand, missed just over 13 weeks. 

This distinction is important, because the long timetable was by design. The Pelicans have been extra careful with Williamson. They’ve attempted to re-program how Williamson moves around the floor and protect him as much as possible from serious injury. 

At the direction of the Pelicans’ training staff, led by newly-hired VP of Player Care, Aaron Nelson, Williamson needed to reach a series of biomechanical benchmarks in order to get cleared to play. The regimen was mocked by Barkley on TNT, but Williamson said his body “does feel a lot better” on a revealing episode of the JJ Redick Podcast.

“I think the biggest challenge has been just the challenge of rehab,” Williamson said. “You know how tough it is, for hours, people watching you, how you land, how you bend when you do this motion -- over and over? ‘Make sure that knee doesn’t cave in. Make sure it stays out. Make sure it’s above the third toe. Make sure you’re standing straight. Land like this.’ Even when I’m out on the court, it’s still the same thing.”

This is all part of VP of Basketball Operations David Griffin’s plan. Months before Williamson underwent knee surgery, Griffin (no relation to Blake) said the team would exercise “an abundance of caution” when it came to Williamson’s health. At the behest of Griffin, who was hired in April, the team had already invested in a multi-million-dollar upgrade of its practice facility and pried Nelson away from the Phoenix Suns to oversee their player health department.

"I feel like the whole vibe, the whole attitude in the facility and with the staff has just been different," point guard Jrue Holiday told ESPN recently. "It definitely feels like people are ready and excited. It's been like that ever since Griff has come into place."

Still, executives around the league have been surprised at how guarded the Pelicans have been with their prized rookie. The team shut Williamson down for the entire Vegas Summer League with a bruised knee after just nine minutes of action. Following the meniscus tear, the official six-to-eight week timetable turned into more than three months on the sidelines. And less than two months into rehab, the team had already ruled him out of playing in back-to-backs, at least initially, upon his return. 

David Griffin has said many times this year that he has never seen a player like Zion Williamson, who is 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds. He claims that Williamson has more lateral quickness than any point guard that has played under him. Keep in mind, Griffin has led or been a part of front offices that employed Kyrie Irving, Steve Nash, Stephon Marbury and Jason Kidd. More mobility than those guys? 

“Yes,” Griffin told me recently. "Without a doubt.”

It remains to be seen how Williamson will fare with the “abundance of caution” approach. But even if Williamson faces chronic knee issues, the Blake Griffin comparison could prove to be an illuminating one for Williamson’s development.

No knee or body is the same, but in surveying executives around the league about what to expect with Williamson’s injury, Griffin’s name popped more often than any player as a reference point. Dating back to college, here’s a history of Griffin’s knee problems: a sprained MCL in his left knee in 2008; a torn meniscus in his right knee in 2008; a broken kneecap in his left knee in 2010; a torn meniscus in his left knee in 2012; a surgical clean-up in his right knee in 2016; another sprained MCL in his left knee in 2017; another torn meniscus in his left knee in 2019; and finally, earlier this month, season-ending surgery to remove a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Knee injuries are rarely a one-time deal (see: Derrick Rose), but players can overcome them and still play at a high-level. Early in his career after a series of knee issues, Griffin was still a wrecking ball around the rim. In his second season, when Lob City became a national sensation, one out of every five of Griffin’s baskets was a dunk, according to Basketball Reference tracking.

But as knee injuries took their toll, Griffin altered his game to be more grounded, yet no less effective. Last season, Griffin dunked the ball once out of every 33 baskets, but he was still an All-Star averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists at the age of 29. Now, instead of a high-flying trapeze artist, Griffin functioned more as a point forward in the Pistons’ offense and made more 3-pointers (189) than any power forward or center last season.

In Wednesday’s debut, Williamson showed his capacity to be that type of player for New Orleans right now. Though the world wanted to see him fly all over the floor, Williamson spent most of his time on Wednesday facilitating for others (Pels coach Alvin Gentry, in his mid-game interview, noted that a nervous Williamson was playing “so conservative.”). 

A couple possessions stood out above the rest. In the second quarter, while playing nominally as the Pelicans’ center, Williamson grabbed a rebound, dribbled up the floor as the de-facto point guard and drove right into LaMarcus Aldridge in the lane. When the Spurs player collapsed around Williamson, he left his feet and improvised by kicking it out to a wide-open E’Twaun Moore, who clanked an easy 3-pointer. Good process, bad result. 

Williamson’s trust in his teammate would be rewarded later. Early in the fourth quarter, after skying over Jakob Poeltl for a defensive rebound, again as the Pelicans' center, Williamson led a fastbreak in the open court and threw an absolute laser to a slashing Moore. This time, Moore finished at the rim for Williamson’s third assist of the night. While it was obvious Williamson was rusty after missing three-plus months, his feel for the game jumped off the screen. Plays like those Moore setups demonstrate Williamson’s vision and knack for a Griffin-like evolution as a player. 

Like those passes, Williamson’s most insightful moments Wednesday were not the high-flying leaps but rather the things he did in between. The Spurs practically begged him to take 3-pointers and Williamson stepped into them with confidence, splashing all of them through the net. The doubters who think he’s just a dunker? This was a reckoning.

Gentry pulled Williamson amid his supernova run to protect him from overdoing it in his debut, much to the chagrin of many on the broadcast and on Twitter. But medical staffs are there for a reason. With all the hand-wringing about Williamson’s minutes restriction and their comprehensive approach that drew Barkley’s ridicule, I thought about something Doc Rivers told me in 2017. This was right after Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers and invested heavily in sports science and player health following Donald Sterling’s infamous bargain-basement reign. Rivers said the Clippers “were just behind” in the sports science and training staff, noting that Sterling would only pay for one trainer and one physical therapist. (The Pelicans currently have nine such staffers).

Sitting in his Staples Center office, I asked Rivers whether he thought Griffin’s long line of leg injuries were preventable if the franchise had invested real dollars in player health. He stammered for a while.

"With Blake, you know ... you never know. Like, if we ... I don't know. I mean, I actually think Blake's ... you couldn't have ... I think Blake's was probably -- I always say that if you miss games, and he missed with his [broken] hand, then when you come back, everything falls apart next. He had what we call 'one of those years.' And there was nothing you could do about it."

And then Rivers paused.

"But you still wonder, like, if there was ... would we have been ready to do it?"

Hello Zion, the floor-spacer

Williamson’s four triples on Wednesday were a revelation. The Spurs dared him to shoot and he did, splashing every shot as the Smoothie King Center erupted. 

What’s interesting about Zion’s 3-pointer spree is that it came when he was playing the center spot with the second unit. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When playing next to the starting unit of Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Derrick Favors, Williams looked like he was in second gear for much of the night.

As the focal point with the reserves, Williamson broke out. He’ll need to find his spots next to the starters, but I’m not worried about that, considering what we saw in the preseason. Even if he doesn’t consistently hit those 3-pointers yet, he can still be a terror on the perimeter.

Back in 2014, cutting-edge numbers from fancy new player-tracking cameras revealed that Dwyane Wade was an elite floor-spacer. At first blush, this didn’t make sense. Wade wasn’t a great 3-point shooter -- not even a good one. And yet, Wade was treated with the same respect as sharpshooters Kyle Korver, Klay Thompson and J.J. Redick. 

What was happening? Well, Wade was spacing the floor, but not as a 3-pointer. Instead, Wade was causing havoc as a devastating cutter to the rim. Fall asleep even for a second and Wade would dart to the rim for a soaring bucket. If defenders didn’t pay him appropriate attention at the 3-point line, he burned them so often that over time, those sagging defenders adjusted and stuck to him like glue. 

And it drove Wade crazy.

“I’m just like, ‘Damn, did I just start shooting 3s and I didn’t know about it?’,” he told me at the time.

Just like Wade, Williamson will soon have the gravitational pull of the sun. The Pelicans suspect it already. Watch their actions off the ball and you’ll see how Williamson’s cutting abilities will transform him into a devastating floor-spacer -- even if he doesn’t hit a 3-point shot.

When defenders shaded off of Williamson in the corner in his preseason slate of four games, the Pelicans liked to have their center, whether it was Favors or Jahlil Okafor, screen Williamson’s sagging defender. The result was almost always a bucket, because it gave Williamson a runway to play downhill. And if you give Williamson a runway, he will launch himself above the defense.

In the preseason, on five off-ball screens for Williamson where he started beyond the 3-point line, the rookie generated five layups, totaling eight points in all, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Flat-footed defenders in his way posed as mere traffic cones. The alternative is defenders stick to Williamson and hope that he can’t break free as easily. 

You may be able to give Williamson the Rajon Rondo treatment on the ball and dare him to shoot. The Spurs did it four times on Wednesday and paid dearly before Williamson checked out (thanks, minutes restriction!).

But off the ball? He can be a nightmare for opponents, even without a knockdown 3-point shot at his disposal. Just ask Dwyane Wade.

Will Zion push the Pelicans into the playoffs?

After Wednesday’s loss, the Pelicans are now 4.5 games behind the Spurs, who sit in sole possession of the No. 8 seed in the West. That’s a noteworthy gap, but Williamson was good enough in his debut to give New Orleans reason to believe that it can make up the deficit by April. 

Buckle in because there is still a very real chance that we’ll be gifted an Anthony Davis Bowl playoff, with New Orleans facing Davis’ top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first-round. 

To get into the playoffs, the Pelicans would have to leapfrog four other teams: Memphis, Phoenix, Portland and San Antonio, just to get there. And yet, FiveThirtyEight.com’s projections have the Pelicans as 53-percent favorites to get into the postseason. 

It all has to do with the schedule. 

Expecting to have box-office-superstar Williamson healthy, the NBA heavily scheduled the Pelicans against marquee teams in their early primetime slate. The result was a brutally-difficult schedule in the opening months without one of the Pelicans’ best players. But that also means the Pelicans are facing the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA.

The Pelicans have already said that they’re planning to rest Williamson during back-to-backs, but they only have three of those sets left on the schedule, with the next one not until early March. If Williamson sits the second night of those three back-to-backs and plays 34 of the Pelicans’ final 37 games, they should be doing backflips. 

Integrating a star midseason is always tricky without the ramp up of training camp and preseason. Paul George didn’t make his Clippers debut until a month into the season due to shoulder rehab and is now nursing a nagging hamstring injury that has sidelined him for seven of the last eight games. Kyrie Irving is also dealing with a sore hamstring after playing four games following a two-month layoff with a hurt shoulder.

Soft-tissue injuries like a strained hamstring are the things that keep trainers up at night, because those are usually caused by overuse. The Pelicans can certainly make a playoff push if Williamson plays like he did on Wednesday. But Griffin’s revamped staff will certainly be monitoring Williamson’s workload going forward -- and with good reason.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.