Zion Williamson is the Pelicans' cornerstone. Who will join him? That's less clear (2024)

NEW ORLEANS – David Griffin had a clear message to convey when he spoke to reporters on Tuesday.

In years past, the Pelicans vice president of basketball operations has emphasized the importance of locker room culture and continuity when laying out the team’s summer plan. That wasn’t the case this time.


“In the past, we’ve always erred on the side of continuity, and our takeaway has always been, ‘Let’s see this group healthy.’ I think we’ve seen it enough,” Griffin said at his end-of-season news conference. “This is not going to be a summer of complacency. It’s time to get better.”

Griffin understands what his team now faces after its season ended with a first-round sweep at the hands of the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. The Pelicans certainly showed promise this season, leading the NBA in road wins (28) while tying for the second-most victories in franchise history.

But even after winning 49 games, the Pels barely made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. Ten West teams finished with at least 46 victories, a list that doesn’t include Memphis, Houston and San Antonio — three young teams expected to make a jump next season.

The absence of Zion Williamson, who suffered a hamstring injury in the team’s Play-In tournament defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers, loomed over the Pelicans’ loss to Oklahoma City. Still, the four-game sweep revealed a definitive gap between them and the young Thunder in talent, on-court adjustments and determination. The Pelicans didn’t just lose this series, they got outclassed.

Now, the Pelicans face a difficult question: How should they respond to this current regime’s most successful season when it ended in such depressing fashion?

“I think we saw it for segments of time well enough to understand we’ve got a lot of work to do. Because it is a historically good Western Conference, there are teams that didn’t make the playoffs that are going to get radically better this offseason,” Griffin said. “We need to do the same. I think you’ll see a real sense of urgency from all of us to do that.”

The coming challenge of competing in the West comes with a looming salary crunch, as several key players are hoping to receive long-term, eight-figure contract extensions this summer. The uncertainty of what comes next will be the ongoing storyline New Orleans can’t escape the next few months.

But the urgency in the building is also tied to getting some long-awaited answers to big questions that once surrounded the most important figure in the franchise. For once, the Pelicans’ star is a source of unbridled optimism heading into the summer.

Zion Williamson is the Pelicans' cornerstone. Who will join him? That's less clear (1)

Zion Williamson put together his most complete season as a pro. (Photo: Sergio Estrada / USA Today)

As media members filtered into Pelicans practice on Sunday, the team was upbeat despite being one loss away from elimination. Several players joked around on one side of the court. On the other side, head coach Willie Green participated in a spirited shooting competition with Jose Alvarado and assistant coach Brandon Demas.


Between those two baskets stood a familiar face, one that hadn’t been seen bouncing around the practice court in nearly two weeks —Zion Williamson.

He was doing standstill shooting on one of the side goals with assistant coach Aaron Miles as part of the next step in his rehabilitation from the hamstring injury. Even as the Pelicans’ season was a day away from ending, their oft-injured star, who missed 194 of a possible 308 regular-games in the first four seasons of his NBA career, was still attempting to make a comeback.

The series ended too quickly for Williamson to finish his rehab, but there was a sense that he would’ve made a serious push to get back on the court if New Orleans had made it past the first round.

“(A return to the court this season) is definitely realistic. That is absolutely realistic,” Williamson told reporters between Games 1 and 2 of the Thunder series. “But like I said, I’ve got to pass the tests (and) get back to baseline. Hopefully, I’ll be out there.”

The last time Williamson was seen in game action was when he hit a left-handed floater over former face of the franchise Anthony Davis for his 39th and 40th points in the Play-In game. He was on the precipice of a transcendent moment in his career, as he had outplayed Davis and LeBron James while leading New Orleans on a comeback from 18 points down. Instead, the shot at the 3:19 mark of the fourth quarter was his last in any game this season, and he was forced to watch from the sidelines again as his team faltered in the playoffs.

“No one will ever convince me we weren’t winning that night if Zion stayed healthy,” one member of the coaching staff told The Athletic.

However, the biggest win for the organization came well before Williamson took that shot or the team even made it into the Play-In Tournament. It came in increments over the final few months of the regular season as Williamson put together some of his best games as a pro.

After a summer in which Williamson spent more time training around the team in New Orleans than ever before, he largely stayed healthy, playing a career-high 70 games while leading the team’s late-season surge. He averaged 23.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game after the All-Star break and dramatically improved his defensive effort. He dominated in the Pelicans’ biggest games, such as when he eviscerated Phoenix for 29 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks in an April 7 road win, then followed it up with 26 points and six steals in a crucial win at Golden State five days later. Before he got injured against the Lakers, he was on his way to carrying the Pelicans to the No. 7 seed.


Multiple team sources said they had been impressed by the progress Williamson made with his mental and physical state prior to his latest hamstring injury. He was in the best shape of his pro career. He was present with his teammates after so often operating away from the group in years past. He was vocal during crucial moments as he embraced taking on more of a leadership role. Despite being injured during the playoffs, he frequently gave instructions animatedly to teammates from the bench during timeouts and picking them up during tough stretches.

Zion getting vocal in the huddle pic.twitter.com/xgAAOhskpJ

— Pelicans Film Room (@PelsFilmRoom) April 25, 2024

The improved synergy between Zion and the Pelicans dates to last summer when the organization chose to make Aaron Nelson, who formerly headed the training staff, a special advisor. Nelson’s relationship with Williamson and his camp had grown frigid over time, and several people close to Williamson expressed concerns with the prospect of Nelson continuing to work directly with the Pelicans’ star.

In an effort to bridge that gap, New Orleans hired Amy Atmore, who worked for the Phoenix Suns in the 2019-20 season and has also trained NFL players in the past, as director of rehabilitation. She worked with Williamson and other players on a more day-to-day basis, which contributed to Williamson playing a career-high 70 games and Ingram appearing in the most games (64) of his Pelicans tenure.

Williamson’s training was even more persistent after the team’s 44-point defeat to the Lakers in December’s In-Season Tournament semifinals. The loss, in which Williamson notched just 13 points and two rebounds, rekindled public criticism about his weight and conditioning.

“That was definitely a big moment for me, because I didn’t look at anybody else. I looked at myself,” Williamson said Tuesday. “I’ll take full blame for that. I wasn’t where I needed to be. I didn’t perform the way I needed to perform. I think it was just one of those things I needed to experience. It definitely changed a lot for me during the season.”

Since then, Williamson made sure to keep “stacking days,” as he so often put it this season. After not earning an All-Star berth, Williamson returned to his home state of South Carolina during the week-long break to train for the big games ahead. He came back more focused and more explosive than he has been since his college season at Duke.

“You never want to see somebody go down when they’re doing what they’re supposed to do consistently,” guard CJ McCollum said Monday. “That was the unfortunate part. He was making real strides, consistent strides of great, healthy habits. Stacking his days. To go down right on the peak of having a chance to be in the playoffs is tough. Deep down, from a motivational standpoint, he knows what he needs to do to play at a high level consistently. … I look forward to seeing how he continues to evolve.”

Even with another season cut short due to injury, Williamson’s place as the face of the franchise is more secure than it was last summer, when he was at the forefront of trade rumors leading into the 2023 NBA Draft. While league sources told The Athletic that Williamson was never included in any official trade offers, the lack of urgency to quell rumors involving him indicated a disconnect at some level.


With their belief in Williamson as a budding superstar now more fortified than ever, the Pelicans’ next question is who will be joining him if and when he gets there.

That’s where things could get interesting this summer, particularly in light of Griffin’s comments.

Zion Williamson is the Pelicans' cornerstone. Who will join him? That's less clear (2)

Brandon Ingram’s poor play against Oklahoma City clouds his future with the Pelicans. (Photo: Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

When Brandon Ingram was asked about his future immediately after Monday’s Game 4 loss to the Thunder, he sounded torn.

On one hand, he spoke about the “unfinished business” he has in New Orleans and the relationships he’s developed at every level of the organization since he was traded from the Lakers in 2019. But he also made sure to say he has to do what’s best for him and his family as he heads into what will certainly be a tumultuous summer.

Ingram’s future is the biggest decision the front office makes this offseason. The soon-to-be 27-year-old forward, who has so often carried the team with Williamson injured over the past five seasons, is set to enter the final year of his current contract. He’s eligible to sign a four-year extension this summer worth a projected $208 million.

It was the kind of payday he joked about just before the start of this season when asked about his decision to not sign the extension last summer. (Had Ingram made an All-NBA team this season, he would have been eligible to sign a supermax deal for even more money.)

“They paying a lot of people big money,” Ingram said jokingly at Pelicans Media Day last October. “I’m trying to get some big money.”

At that time, it seemed only a matter of when, not if the Pelicans would re-sign Ingram to pair him with Williamson as long as they could. The main decision-makers within the organization have never hesitated to share their belief that Ingram is a special leader and talent. He made a point of communicating one-on-one with Williamson more often this year, and each was vocal about their desire to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. Their actions backed up their words as well, with both willingly decreasing their usage on offense as the team’s success improved.


“I appreciate Brandon because he takes so much personal responsibility for this and he cares so much. I also love the fact that he loves this franchise and he loves this city. He wants to be here,” Griffin said. “His willingness to take ownership of things makes you feel even better about the human he is.”

However, in light of Ingram’s playoff struggles, the pending expiration of his current contract and Griffin’s desire for urgency this summer, questions about Ingram’s future in New Orleans are only natural.

Ingram’s second trip to the playoffs could not have gone any more differently than his debut in 2022, when he exploded onto the scene in a competitive six-game defeat to the 64-win Phoenix Suns.

He averaged just 14.3 points on 34.5 percent shooting against the Thunder while being hounded by the physical defense of Oklahoma City guard Lu Dort. Ingram’s last game was his worst, as he scored eight points on abysmal 2-of-14 shooting. While he clearly showed the effects of a late-season knee injury, his obvious lack of confidence and reluctance to hunt his normal shots brought the Pelicans’ offense to a screeching halt.

In his news conference following the defeat, Ingram didn’t shy away from acknowledging his postseason struggles. He even said his play throughout the season — starting with him losing his starting spot midway through Team USA’s 2023 FIBA World Cup campaign — was a disappointment.

“From (Team) USA up to this season, it’s probably the worst I’ve been in a New Orleans Pelicans uniform. I’m motivated by that,” Ingram said. “I’ve got to look in the mirror, and I’ve got to tell myself what I really need to do. How can I help this team?”

GO DEEPERBrandon Ingram faces his toughest opponent: himself

Williamson’s injury undoubtedly placed a heavy burden on Ingram, as well as on the 32-year-old McCollum, whose production also tailed off in the postseason. Still, their struggles come at a time when the Pelicans must make significant decisions about their roster, which will have ripple effects for years to come.


The projected luxury tax line in 2024-25 is expected to be around $172 million. The combined salaries of Williamson, Ingram and McCollum will take up close to $106 million alone. Maintaining and improving a viable supporting cast that includes homegrown pieces such as Herb Jones, Trey Murphy and Alvarado would almost certainly push the small-market Pelicans into the luxury tax in the future, especially if Ingram receives a new contract. The Pelicans have never paid the luxury tax in their 22-year history; the Charlotte Hornets are the only other franchise with that distinction.

While the Pelicans’ three highest-paid players showed flashes of brilliance in their first season of relative health, the team’s performance with all three on the floor wasn’t nearly as potent as some had hoped. In the 737 minutes Williamson, McCollum and Ingram played together this season, the Pelicans were outscored by 3.2 points per 100 possessions — a shockingly poor mark for players of their caliber. For reference, Oklahoma City’s big three of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren had a net rating of plus-12 in their 1,180 minutes together this season.

“Anytime two of the three were on the court, we won those minutes. When three of them were on the court, we tended not to.” Griffin said. “That has a lot to do with what we support that group with. Giving them the ancillary pieces that helps them thrive. Knowing now, because we’ve got to see the group enough, what those things are, I think we’ll be able to address some of that. Certainly, we have to be open to a lot of things.”

Statistically, the Pelicans’ greatest weapon this regular season was their depth. Players such as Murphy, Alvarado, center Larry Nance Jr., guard Naji Marshall and others consistently blitzed opposing second units and blended in well with lineups featuring one or two members of the Williamson-Ingram-McCollum trio.

But the price of that supporting cast is going up. The 23-year-old Murphy is eligible for an extension this summer; considering his trajectory, skill set and on-court fit with Williamson, it would be shocking if the Pelicans don’t nail out a contract with him as soon as possible, even if the price exceeds $100 million over four years. Marshall is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and Alvarado becomes one next summer if the team cannot work out an extension. The Pelicans must also find a way to upgrade a center position that proved to be its Achilles heel, with incumbent Jonas Valančiūnas entering unrestricted free agency and the undersized Nance turning 32 next season.

Potential extensions for Murphy and/or Ingram won’t go into effect until the 2025-26 season, so the Pelicans can at least run it back with this core for one more season while restructuring a few things around the edges to build off their 49-win campaign. Griffin’s comments Tuesday, however, suggest the Pelicans may be taking a more aggressive approach.

The Pelicans’ clock is ticking, and the bill is due soon. Williamson’s play and approach this season certainly are cause for optimism, but it also brings the rest of the roster under the microscope. Either the Pelicans commit financially to this group in ways they never have before, or they may need to move on from at least one of three players — Ingram, McCollum and/or Murphy — who have been instrumental to their success the last three seasons.

It’s not pleasant, but it’s a reality that will be hitting New Orleans sooner rather than later.

(Top photos of Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson: Jonathan Bachman and Cole Burston / Getty Images)

Zion Williamson is the Pelicans' cornerstone. Who will join him? That's less clear (2024)


What happened to Zion for the Pelicans? ›

OKLAHOMA CITY — Zion Williamson said suffering the left hamstring injury that has prevented him from making his NBA playoff debut was "demoralizing," but he didn't rule out a return to the court this spring.

How did the Pelicans get Zion? ›

Following a freshman-year stint with the Duke Blue Devils, Williamson was selected by the Pelicans with the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team in 2020.

Which team selected Zion Williamson? ›

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It's been nearly five years since Pelicans fans packing a downtown block party erupted as New Orleans officially selected Zion Williamson first overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.

What college does Zion Williamson go to? ›

College: Duke

During his senior year (2017–18), Williamson committed to play college basketball for Duke University. At the time, he was regarded as the second best prospect in the country, behind R.J. Barrett, who would be his teammate at Duke.

What surgery did Zion have? ›

Last offseason, Williamson had surgery on his right foot to repair his fifth metatarsal (the bone connecting the little toe and the ankle), but the area has not healed as Zion and the doctors had hoped.

Does Giannis have dual citizenship? ›

Antetokounmpo also holds Nigerian citizenship, having received his Nigerian passport in 2015, and as such possesses dual citizenship. He has stated that he feels both Greek and Nigerian and that he embraces both his Greek, as well as his African/Nigerian identity.

How tall is Zion in feet? ›

Zion Williamson is 6 feet 6 inches tall.

What is Zions' wingspan? ›

What are the Pelicans odds of getting Zion? ›

The New Orleans Pelicans won the draft lottery on Tuesday and will pick first in the 2019 NBA Draft on June 20. The draw gives the Pelicans — who had only a 6 percent chance of winning — the inside track to select Duke freshman forward Zion Williamson at No. 1.

What is Zion's career high? ›

Zion Williamson dropped his most points in a game versus the Timberwolves on December 28, 2022, with 43 points.

When was Kobe drafted? ›

Kobe & O'Neal straight from HS. The jerseys are 🔥 The class is arguably the greatest of all-time.

Who is Zion Williamson signed to? ›

In July 2022, the New Orleans Pelicans signed Zion Williamson to a five-year, $197.2 million max contract even though he had played only 85 games over his first three seasons. The contract did contain some protections for the Pelicans tied to Williamson's weight and injury history, although the details weren't clear…

What is zions' weight? ›

SAN ANTONIO – The physical builds of Zion Williamson and Victor Wembanyama couldn't be any more different. Williamson is a 6-foot-6, 285-pound bowling ball who crashes through defenses like Jerome Bettis on the goalline.

Who is the youngest NBA player? ›

The oldest active player is LeBron James, who is currently 39 years, 150 days old. The youngest active player in the NBA is Memphis Grizzlies forward GG Jackson, the 45th overall pick in the 2023 NBA draft, who was born on December 17, 2004.

What does LeBron think of Zion? ›

"He's gonna be great for a long time," he told reporters. "Obviously he had a slow start to the season this year, but he's a generational player, a generational talent. He's going to continue to get better, and tonight was just a small microcosm of how great he can be.

What happened to Zion in the Bible? ›

According to the Book of Samuel, Mount Zion was the site of the Jebusite fortress called the "stronghold of Zion" that was conquered by King David, then renamed and partially rebuilt by him as the "City of David", where he erected his palace.

What happened to Jimmy Butler? ›

'I want to hoop,' Butler said during a televised interview with TNT but the 6-time All-Star remains sidelined indefinitely. Miami's Jimmy Butler is out indefinitely after spraining his MCL during the Play-In Tournament.

Has Zion played in the playoffs? ›

Zion Williamson is the only 2019 lottery pick to never play in a playoff game. After the Thunder swept the Pelicans, Zion ends his fifth season having played 184 regular season games and zero playoff games.

Is Terry Rozier injured? ›

Rozier is dealing with a neck spasm. The 30-year-old missed the final four games of the 2023-24 regular season with the injury. He was sidelined for Miami's two Play-In Tournament games and has yet to play in the 2024 NBA Playoffs.


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