Zion Williamson and the Pelicans’ Soaring Ambition: Overcoming Injuries to Become a Playoff Force

Allie Troy | Last Updated : April 12, 2024

As the 2022-23 NBA regular season winds down, there is a palpable sense of urgency and belief permeating the New Orleans Pelicans’ locker room. This is a team brimming with confidence, embracing heightened expectations, and no longer content to merely make the Play-In tournament.  

Leading that charge is the supersized force of nature named Zion Williamson, whose health, fitness, and overall impact have reached stratospheric levels after a series of Zion Williamson injury setbacks earlier in his career. Alongside co-stars Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum, the Pelicans possess a powerful trio capable of making serious noise if they can secure a playoff berth and Williamson stays on the court.

“New Orleans never had a team like this,” Ingram stated with conviction. “We got more weapons, people that can put the ball on the floor, people that can defend, people that can shoot.”

Indeed, this New Orleans squad is night and day from past iterations. They play with a new “sense of urgency” instilled by head coach Willie Green following the All-Star break. Practices are intense and focused, with accountability being preached daily as the Pelicans drive to finally shed their Play-In purgatory.

Within that heightened preparation exists a modernized offensive system tailored to maximize the unique skillsets of Williamson, Ingram, and McCollum. Through collaboration with new associate head coach James Borrego, McCollum has embraced more off-ball tactics to enhance floor spacing and create driving lanes for his co-stars.

“I shoot 41.7% on 9.2 3-point attempts per 36 minutes…up from 7.4 per 36 last season,” McCollum explained. “Somebody in the starting lineup has to shoot 3s, right? Everybody can’t play in the midrange.”

The shots New Orleans is taking demonstrate a strategic evolution. Corner 3-point attempts have skyrocketed and the team ranks 9th in overall offensive efficiency, up from 20th a year ago. Crisp ball movement, cutting, and Williamson’s sheer gravitational pull as a physical phenomenon make everything click.

“Honestly it feels like things have been coming together, slowly, since the start of the year,” said big man Larry Nance Jr. “I feel like every month of the season, we just got 10% better, 10% more comfortable.”

At their free-flowing best, the Pelicans resemble a blur of havoc – generating steals, deflections, and transition scoring chances through the ferocious efforts of reserves like Jose Alvarado and Naji Marshall. When that frantic second unit clears way for Williamson to share the floor with shooters like Trey Murphy III and Nance, New Orleans’ offense reaches nuclear potential.

This delicate balancing act of skillsets and roles would mean little, however, if not for the monumental leap Williamson has taken as a dedicated, disruptive force on both ends.

The Former “Defensive Liability” No More  

Four months ago, Williamson’s commitment to conditioning and defensive intensity faced withering criticism – most notably from Charles Barkley questioning if he would “ever get in shape.” The hulking 6’6″ 285-pounder responded by playing his way into legitimate Defensive Player of the Year consideration.

“Three of his five blocks against the Suns came in the fourth quarter, including one supermassive swat against Kevin Durant,” the report details. “He makes multiple-effort plays, guards opposing stars and sustains his energy late in games, even when he’s carrying the Pelicans offensively.”

Williamson’s ability to make a defensive impact at an elite level changes everything for New Orleans. Once viewed as a potential liability on that end that might ultimately cap his own team’s ceiling, the former No. 1 overall pick is now using freakish physical tools – length, strength, leaping ability – to punish opponents on both sides of the ball.  

Pelicans forward Herb Jones, himself a stellar perimeter defender, crystalized Williamson’s growth by stating, “It was just a matter of doing it every game…he’s kind of understood the importance of just giving max effort each play and being OK with the result.”

For all of Zion’s immense offensive gifts and potential to go down as one of the most indomitable interior forces the NBA has seen, asserting himself defensively is the crucial final step toward superstardom. If he can consistently wreak nightly havoc like vintage Shaquille O’Neal in his absolute prime, opponents will have no answers.

All of this combined with Williamson’s improved conditioning and overall fitness have unlocked a dimension of relentless two-way impact. Just ask Kevin Durant and the Suns, who witnessed the full Zion onslaught with audacious blocks, vicious finishes and a level of endurance that would’ve seemed unlikely through past injury woes.

“If the Pelicans can finish the regular season with the same force and poise, maybe they are indeed a scary team,” the report states. “Maybe they will be a problem for somebody.”

Collective Buy-In Amid Resilient Push

Of course, it would be reductive to pin New Orleans’ soaring outlook entirely on Williamson finding an unstoppable higher gear, as tantalizing as that narrative may seem. For these Pelicans to reach their full potential, a total buy-in from Ingram, McCollum and the rest of the supporting cast is paramount.

Any theoretical concerns about Ingram’s ability to adapt his individual greatness for the greater team good have been quashed this season. Despite operating on lower usage, shot attempts and scoring outputs compared to past campaigns, the lanky forward’s cumulative impact is arguably greater than ever before.

Ingram credits a “constant dialogue” for Coach Borrego on getting to the rim, reading defenses and flowing into proper spots based on each possession’s needs. The results are career-best playmaking numbers and efficiency as a scorer. More importantly, that sacrifice hasn’t undermined Ingram’s own star presence – he’s posting arguably his finest all-around season from an advanced stats perspective.  

“We got guys coming off the bench that’s hungry,” Ingram said. “I have 100% trust in everybody that’s coming off that bench because I’ve seen it over and over again.”

New Orleans boasts the league’s third-best net rating from its reserve unit, with combinations featuring the defensive chaos-agents Alvarado and Marshall alongside snipers like Murphy inflicting serious damage. They’re a deeper, more cohesive collective working in concert with a championship-level defensive foundation.

Of course, all that diligent roster construction, buy-in and attention to conditioning can unravel quickly if the injury bug that plagued past Pelicans seasons resurfaces at the wrong time. New Orleans has already weathered stretches without Williamson, Ingram, Alvarado and others while its playoff hopes hung in the balance.

“I think that’s what it takes, every team needs a little bit of luck,” Ingram noted. “The injury bug hasn’t been around.”

Yet even as Ingram, Williamson and others have missed time, Pelicans’ resilience in clawing for a playoff spot is reflective of heightened individual and team growth. This isn’t just a group puffing out its chest prematurely. Their swagger, energy and willingness to sacrifice is all very real.

And speaking of realizing unrealized potential, perhaps no player currently embodies taking that skill-to-impact climb more than Williamson. Not that long ago, he bore the brunt of body shaming and had his long-term commitment to conditioning openly doubted despite being just 22 years old.

Fast forward mere months, and we’re witnessing an absolute two-way force spearheading a potential playoff juggernaut. A Defensive Player of the Year candidate destroying rims while chasing Kevin Durant over screens and swatting his shot into the lower bowl.  

Simply put, this isn’t the same player – or team – from a year ago. New Orleans is bigger, deeper, tougher, and galvanized to validate this season’s soaring ambition of not just winning a playoff series, but being a nightmare matchup problem for any opponent.

If Williamson’s health cooperates and the rest of his running mates continue jelling around his meteoric rise, the NBA should brace itself for the Pelicans crashing into the postseason like a savagely confident, scorned heavyweight contender. There was a championship-or-bust belief radiating from New Orleans well before zion williamson injury issues faded into the background as distant memories.

Now that belief is transforming into a reality that should terrify the rest of the Western Conference’s elite. For as unstoppable as

Allie Troy

Allie Troyis a certified diabetes educator who loves to help people get excited about healthy and delicious foods, nutrition science, and active living. Her nutrition advising approach is to help people simplify and personalize their plans. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Dietetics from Indiana University and a Master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition from Rutgers University, New Jersey. She is also a certified diabetes educator through the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators.

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