The rookie sensation’s availability to play remained unclear as the season’s resumption in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, approached. He left the NBA’s so-called »bubble» setup on July 16 to attend to an unspecified family medical matter. A week later, the club had yet to provide an update on his possible return.
The departure of the NBA’s top overall draft choice would seem deflating after the way he played in 19 games after missing his first 44 while recovering from right knee surgery.
Not only did he average 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in less than 30 minutes per game, but the 6-foot-6, nearly 285-pound power forward did it with the explosive mix of agility, quickness, strength and leaping ability that has made him a global basketball sensation since before he starred at Duke.
His apparent dedication to improving his physique, conditioning and fundamentals during a three-month hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic only heightened anticipation for the resumption of his rookie season.
»Zion looked great,» Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. »He did a lot of work when we were going through these days where we weren’t together.»
But Gentry also stresses that the Pelicans looked great without Williamson from late December into January, when they won 11 of 16 games to revive playoff prospects that seemed far-fetched following a 7-23 start that included a franchise worst 13-game skid.
»The main thing that we’ve got to keep in mind,» Gentry began, »is that we had a stretch where we did well before Zion became, from a health standpoint, able to play.»
That stint saw forward Brandon Ingram blossom into a club’s top-scorer (24.3 points per game) and a first-time All-Star, while guard Lonzo Ball improved his shot and grew more comfortable as a play-maker alongside Jrue Holiday in the back court.
After Williamson came back, the Pelicans won 10 of 19, leaving them in striking distance of Memphis for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference when the season was suspended in March.
»We put ourselves in a great position to make the playoffs, even though we started off kind of rough,» center Derrick Favors said. »That just means that we’ve got a good group of guys on the team that have great character, strong will, and are just willing to lay it all out on the line.»
The Pelicans say Williamson has been tested for COVID-19 daily during his while away and remains negative, raising his prospects for gaining NBA approval to play after isolating as few as four days following his return to Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.
The Pelicans begin the resumption of their season July 30 against Utah, followed two days later by a date with the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Pelicans are 3 1/2 games behind Memphis for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. But there is also the possibility of participating in the postseason by finishing ninth and within four games of the eighth seed. In that case, the ninth-place team would have to beat the eighth-place team in two straight to advance to the full NBA playoffs. Portland currently holds the ninth spot, with New Orleans and Sacramento less than one game behind in a tie for 10th.
Gentry says Ball, who was part of last summer’s Anthony Davis trade to the Lakers, was »playing as well as any guard in the league» when the season was suspended.
Ball has averaged 12.4 points, 7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals this season. With a new shooting motion, he’s hitting better than 38 percent of his 3-pointers. And his knack for pushing the ball up court with quick, long outlet passes has made him a good fit in New Orleans’ up-tempo offense.
»I feel like he kind of gets his thrill, and he makes great plays, by passing,» Holiday said. »He can score whenever he wants to … but I think the way he makes plays for other people is incredible.»
The Pelicans see Favors’ presence in the middle, particularly on the defensive end, as a reason they climbed back into contention. Favors missed 16 games early this season because of injury and the death of his mother.
He returned in mid-December and the Pelicans have since won 20 of the 35 games in which he played, including 12 victories during which Williamson was out.
»He’s a smart player,» Holiday said. »Offensively, he knows spacing well. He’s a great rebounder. He kind of does the intangibles and the things that people don’t like to do.»
Senior Pelicans assistant Jeff Bzdelik, who has overseen the club’s defensive schemes, decided against accompanying the club to central Florida. At 67, he’s considered higher risk for having grave symptoms if he contracts COVID-19. But Gentry said Bzdelik with continue to instruct the Pelicans on defensive assignments between games via video conference.
»He’s going to be involved in every practice,» Gentry said. »He’ll be involved in every game plan.»
Assistant Jamelle McMillan, who has a newborn at home, also has stayed behind.
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