Patience is paying off for the Pelicans

It remains to be seen if consistency will be sustainable for the rest of the season but the ability to practice patience and not panic is the key to the most recent stretch of success for the New Orleans Pelicans as they have won 5 of their last seven games.

It was hard for Pels fans to not have their imaginations run wild after the team opened the regular season with a 4-2 record so when the eventual fallout arrived it is no wonder there was plenty of overreaction to go around. Coach Stan Van Gundy had the task of guiding a core of young players still learning who they are in the NBA. The answers to how the puzzle pieces of this roster fit were not immediately clear and there hasn’t been much practice time in a second pandemic season to go around. In Monday’s press conference, Van Gundy explained that learning who this team is and who they can be has been something everyone is working on as they go along.

“I don’t think I’ll fully know until we go through the entire year because of all the situations you’re going to encounter,” Van Gundy said. “But I think I have a pretty good feel now. I have a better idea of who I want to play and who to get the ball to and what we need to do late in the game.”

As Van Gundy goes on to explain that he’s figuring out what his team can do defensively and what they are focused on moving forward, there is a calmness in his voice. His voice indicates that there is no panic and everything is about evaluation from here on out.

While Van Gundy’s words may signal further assurance that the Pelicans are in a rebuilding year and that reaching the postseason isn’t the main priority, the team is showing signs of being a serious competitor for a multitude of reasons as of late and another string of wins could place them right back in the middle of the Western Conference race.

The Rise of Zion
Zion Williamson has been star-worthy all season long for New Orleans and his continued historic run carrying over from the limited amount of games he was able to play last season in his rookie campaign seems to be going under the radar when it comes to the national conversation. His current evolution as a star in the NBA has been an essential ingredient in the recipe for the team’s newfound success.

Last Friday night in a 114-113 win over the Indiana Pacers, Williamson surpassed scoring 1,000 points in his career. No one has reached that benchmark sooner in their career in NBA history except for Shaquille O’Neal.

Williams currently leads the NBA in points in the paint, averaging 17.9 per game, and he is on pace for having the highest average in the league in the last 15 years. Williamson is also shooting 74.1 percent in isolation this season, a league’s best.

There is also a lot more happening than Williamson being efficient in post-ups down-low. He’s taking steps and becoming a different version of the player we saw in his rookie season.

In discussing Williamson’s fit next starting center Steven Adams, Van Gundy said that Williamson is evolving as a player and is stretching the floor himself rather than counting on others to create lanes for his inside scoring.

“I think a lot of people tend to think of Zion as an inside guy that posts up,” Van Gundy said. “I think we’re seeing him evolved into a perimeter guy that can post up and because of this he can fit with Steven Adams and do so better as he continues to play on the perimeter.”

Williamson’s ball-handling has strengthened which allows the offense to run more sets through him. At times he has initiated the offense from the top as “Point Zion”, allowing him to attack or dish the ball off to shooters on the wings. He’s also been able to orchestrate pick-and-rolls with Brandon Ingram or a guard, who will typically pop out to the 3-point line, creating an open perimeter shot as the defense braces for a crashing Williamson option. In the past 6 games, Williamson is averaging 4.8 assists.

It seems quite odd that these efforts that would generally produce MVP or Most Improved Player conversations for older members of the league are being normalized with a second-year player that’s only 20-years-old. However, Williamson has had an impact with fans as he and Ingram are currently in the Top 10 of frontcourt players in the West receiving All-Star votes.

Power and finesse
Williamson and Brandon Ingram are showing that they are one of the league’s most dynamic one-two punches. Williamson’s power game is balanced out by Ingram’s silky smooth mid-range halfcourt game, creating a matchup nightmare for defenses that switch to man coverage.

The Pelicans followed up Friday’s win over Indiana with a 118-109 win over Memphis the very next night. Ingram and Williamson combined for 56 points in Saturday’s victory.

Film don’t lie
In one of the signs pointing to the team buying into a new system forming by Van Gundy, Ingram and Williamson have been dedicated to studying film in sessions with their coach and the results are showing up.

“They both are working a lot harder,” Van Gundy said of New Orleans’ one-two punch at forward. “That’s good. I think it translates to the rest of the team.”

Scoring has never been a problem for either of these two but Van Gundy said that he has made a point to use the film sessions as a teaching tool to get players in the correct places and use their hands-on defense.

The curious case of Zo
Lonzo Ball’s play has been tremendous in this stretch of success and it appears to have been initiated after rumors surfaced that the team interested in trading Ball, J.J. Redick, and Eric Bledsoe.

Ball’s up-and-down play does not appear to be based on talent as he is a gifted athlete. If confidence is the factor here, the hope from the Pelicans is that he can hold on to that energy. In his case, it is simple. When Ball plays well, New Orleans wins. Simple.

Finding depth
The rise of rookie point guard Kira Lewis Jr. in the rotation is a major step for this team. Lewis is a true point guard who has strides to make in the NBA but he brings a quicker pace to the reserve unit and better decision making from the offensive end.

Guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker may have to fight for minutes again but having Lewis move into the role of backup point guard solidifies Alexander-Walker’s role as a bench scorer. Van Gundy said in Monday’s press conference that he now feels that Alexander-Walker is more suited to play the two-guard spot and playing him in position will result in better decision making.

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