Zion Williamson and the Pelicans are finally having fun: 'We play for each other'

DETROIT — The last time the NBA world was truly checked in with the New Orleans Pelicans, the team essentially embarrassed itself at the inaugural in-season tournament in Las Vegas in December, the jokes flew about Zion Williamson’s weight and everyone went about their merry way to apply attention elsewhere.

The Williamson stuff is cheap folly, but enough of it was earned given the high expectations. It overshadows, though, his improved play — which seems to have coincided with the Pelicans and their chase of home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

If the playoffs started today, they’d be in a dogfight with the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers aren’t a mirror image, but in terms of expectations, the same words are uttered: show me.

The Pelicans have quietly asserted themselves, found an identity and worked in the obscurity of the arduous NBA schedule — hiding in plain sight, one would say. They’re 18-7 since Jan. 31, tied for second best in that span with Oklahoma City and Denver, and behind the behemoth Boston Celtics (20-4).

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - MARCH 15: Herbert Jones #5 of the New Orleans Pelicans and Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans react after scoring against the LA Clippers during the fourth quarter an NBA game at Smoothie King Center on March 15, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
The Pelicans are staring down the Clippers for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

That’s a strong sample size, one that if the record was applied to a bigger brand name would garner morning talk-show segments about championship readiness. But since the Pelicans are who they are, more work has to be done before the masses truly give them attention.

They have the ingredients of a playoff party crasher and maybe more. Not many teams can sic Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III on wings, giving super-scorer Brandon Ingram a chance to go elsewhere until he has to take a matchup.

Jones is a strong candidate for All-Defense, and assistant coaches around the league mention his name very early on the list, with the likes of Victor Wembanyama, Jrue Holiday and Rudy Gobert.

He’s in the top 20 in steals, but he’s one of those defenders that you know greatness when you see it. Long, rangy, athletic wings who aren’t running from their matchup aren’t exactly in abundance — and Jones should be elevated to the top tier of defenders after knocking on the door his first two years.

The signature play, one that might be put in a Pelicans time capsule, is Jones lunging at a Paul George 3-pointer a couple weeks ago. He had no business trying to contest it. Jones was in a sea of bodies at the rim when George caught it at the top of the key.

“I was just trying to get out so the coaches wouldn’t say nobody contested the 3,” Jones told Yahoo Sports. “Then I’d seen how he slowed down, so I’m like, ‘I might have a chance.’ I didn’t think I was gonna get there, but I treat that like it’s my last.”

He swiped it, improbably, then galloped downcourt for a dunk — two of his seven points in a 112-104 win over the Clippers, the game where Williamson also took on the Kawhi Leonard matchup in the fourth quarter.

On a team with Jones and Murphy, that’s intentional, and contagious.

“Everybody’s starting to take that side of the ball a lot more personal,” Jones told Yahoo Sports. “I know it’s a team thing, but it comes down to one-on-one matchups. If we don’t have to double, breakdowns don’t happen.”

It’s almost a manhood thing, guard your man, and the Pelicans have risen to sixth in defensive efficiency.

“It’s more of a mindset now," Jones said. "I think at the beginning of the season, I couldn’t say that.”

He admits the turning point was everything in Vegas, and since then they’ve put their heads down and committed themselves to that end.

As a result, the Pelicans are in the Clippers' rearview mirror for the fourth seed and home-court advantage, close enough for a veteran team to acknowledge. And the veteran team can only run so fast against these young thoroughbreds, who have just begun a six-game homestand that could swing things definitively.

“If we can get it, that would be great,” Williamson said. “Great for the city, great for the team. Wherever we stand, we’ll make the most of it.”

So much of the cautious optimism is because Williamson is a big unknown, but the latest returns have been impressive. Since being scolded by the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, the talk of his weight dropping has been top of mind. But his play warrants the extra look. It’s not just the 24 points, six rebounds and nearly six assists he’s averaged since the end of January. He is playing longer stretches and has been available in ways you couldn’t always count on.

“He’s been committed to stacking his days,” Pelicans coach Willie Green told Yahoo Sports recently. “He comes in, he’s getting multiple workouts a day. He's continuing to work at it. And you guys can see when he touches the floor he's an amazing talent.”

Following an electric 36-point showing on 13-of-14 shooting against the depressing Pistons, Williamson echoed Green’s words.

“I feel great. And I’m having fun,” Williamson said. “And in terms of stacking my days, it’s just doing all the little things — recovery, extra recovery, conditioning and extra conditioning — and when we’re in practice, just bringing a high intensity so that my body can be used to that.”

Williamson having fun could sound cliché, but consider all he’s had to deal with — and hear — along the way. Having fun is an accomplishment, one many injury-riddled players don’t always make it back to.

Having fun is … fun.

Which means no bueno for the opponent.

Guarding Williamson is no easy task, with very little comparison at this level. Maybe Shaq in his prime is the closest, especially when he ran the floor better than anyone at his size.

But imagine going a round with Mike Tyson in his prime and operating in that phone booth. Williamson beats on you, his shoulder caving your chest in. Your knees buckling, your teeth clicking.

Then he has the nerve to run past you and jump over you — leading to a moment in a film session where your coach doesn’t say much to you the next day, and if he does, you shoot him a look to say, “You try defending him.”

If it’s not a fun day at the office, imagine what it would be like in a seven-game playoff series, with the added stakes and increased physicality.

Even Jones and Murphy laugh about it, joking that while practices are competitive, Williamson doesn’t exert full force.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - MARCH 16: New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson #1 reacts after scoirng during the first quarter of an NBA game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Smoothie King Center on March 16, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson, who has yet to play in the postseason, could thrive in a physical seven-game series. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

And Williamson knows how critical those two are to making his life easier, especially in the wake of Ingram’s recent knee injury that, luckily, will cost him only another week or so.

“Oh, you haven’t heard? Herb’s the word,” Williamson said in an unrehearsed dad joke that needs more work. “What he brings to this team, it won’t show up on the stat sheet. Same for Murph. We have this great chemistry as a team where we play for each other.”

Still, as good as their record is, it could be better. The Pelicans struggle in the clutch, with an 11-14 record. They’re not alone. Veteran-laden Phoenix has an 18-20 mark, and the Suns will likely lament their struggles whenever this season ends. Golden State has championship equity, and it is 20-22, in line for similar regrets.

The Pelicans don’t have the pedigree or even the expectations, but there is a real opportunity in front of them if they can recognize it. In their close loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Williamson didn’t have a shot attempt in the last 3:26, and only had three overall in the fourth quarter.

That won’t cut it, even if Ingram will alleviate a lot of that pressure off Williamson and someone like C.J. McCollum. Generally, they’re a decent enough fourth-quarter team, but higher standards are a’calling.

They know how important home-court advantage is in Round 1. It means something for now, but it’s also symbolic for what they’re doing, everyone in the franchise — finally — trekking in the same direction.

“It’s important in general. If that puts us in fourth, great. If it puts us in third, great,” Green said. “Hopefully when it’s all said and done, we can be in a good spot."