Zion Williamson Has Been Lean And Lively In March

This is a familiar phase in the Zion Williamson cycle, and fortunately it’s the happiest: A healthy and bouncy Zion Williamson is leading the New Orleans Pelicans to steady victory. It’s preferable to the other phases, which include but are not limited to “out of shape and subject of lurid speculation,” “injured with no timetable for return,” and “absent and communicating with team solely by carrier pigeon.” While we can’t rule out the possibility of re-entering one or all of those phases before the year is over, the Pelicans forward has been spectacular this month.

In March, Williamson is averaging 23.2 points on 68 percent true shooting—comical efficiency characteristic of his past flashes of All-NBA quality—along with 7.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists. He’s recovered the point-Zion responsibilities that have been granted to and taken from him at various points of his Pelicans tenure, and he’s handling them beautifully, initiating half-court offense as C.J. McCollum ages into a pinpoint off-ball shooter. Unsurprisingly, Williamson’s individual success fuels the collective.

The Pelicans are 9-2 this month, in large part because they’ve whooped middling teams; Williamson dropped 36 points on 13-of-14 shooting on the depleted Pistons on Sunday. But they’ve also collected a couple of statement victories, most notably a March 15 win over the Clippers, who currently sit just a half-game ahead of them in fourth place. The Pelicans are once again in the thick of another Western Conference playoff hunt, and, barring a catastrophe, Williamson should play his first-ever postseason games.

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The apparent conditioning issues that had the peanut gallery so chatty back in December seem to be gone. The gravity sliders are down, the dunks once again resemble an aircraft carrier aloft in a tornado, and Williamson is even playing lockdown perimeter defense on Kawhi Leonard when needed. For all the tantalizing potential Williamson had as a team defender in college, when he was regularly jumping passing lanes and careening out to the corners to block threes, he’s mostly been a catastrophe on that side of the floor in the NBA. It would be a coup if he could just develop into a league-average defender at the four despite his humble 6-foot-6 height and 6-foot-10 wingspan, and that will require the kind of fitness and foot speed that he seems to have just found.

ESPN’s NBA desk suggests that he’s rediscovered the physicality of Duke Zion. I won’t go that far—nor can I take seriously Brian Windhorst’s recent report on his podcast, suggesting that Williamson has lost 25(!) pounds since December—but he’s clearly trending in the right direction. Perhaps the most reassuring physical indicator of all is Williamson’s 60 games played this season, just one shy of his career record for a single campaign. For reference, he appeared in 29 games over the previous two seasons combined. In December, The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov reported that Williamson’s future years of salary were not guaranteed because of his prolonged absences. He also has millions of dollars of future salary hinging on some unusual conditioning standards, requiring the sum of his weight and body fat percentage to fall under 295.

The Pelicans remain a deeply strange team. There’s a lot of individual talent, but also a lot of clunky redundancy between the stars, and sometimes it’s hard to understand how it all hangs together successfully. Williamson’s non-stop assault on the rim would be ideal alongside a floor-spacing center and a complementary off-ball star, but instead he has an enormous mound of Jonas Valanciunas in the paint and a ball-dominant Brandon Ingram to share the rock. New Orleans gets a lot of utility out of its young wings, between Herb Jones’s cussed defense and motor, and Trey Murphy has recently restabilized volume shooting from deep. Despite the weirdnesses in roster construction, it works; the Pelicans are sixth in the league in defensive rating and 10th in offensive rating. But they also have the fourth-hardest schedule for the remainder of the season, and Ingram just hyperextended his knee on Friday, to be evaluated in two weeks. Since Zion Williamson was drafted in 2019, it has always been broadly true that the fate of the Pelicans rests on his shoulders. As he approaches his first-ever postseason with his co-star in street clothes, it’s especially true right now.

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