NEW ORLEANS - The future of power forward Zion Williamson and the trajectory of the New Orleans Pelicans will be prominent, interwoven subplots throughout this NBA season.
It's Year 3 for Pelicans basketball operations chief David Griffin and his overhaul of the franchise. The powerful, high-scoring and charismatic Williamson became the centerpiece of that project when he was drafted first overall in 2019.
But Williamson still awaits his first taste of the NBA playoffs and now has his third head coach in three seasons in the newly hired Willie Green.
Williamson will be eligible for a rookie maximum contract extension next summer, and fans in New Orleans hope he won't be so disillusioned with the Pelicans by then that he becomes the first player to reject such an offer in favor of a quicker path to (restricted) free agency in 2023.
To Griffin, the past two seasons were disappointing, yet understandable growing pains as he and general manager Trajan Langdon try to reshape the Pelicans' roster for sustainable small-market success. Griffin has eschewed high-dollar splashes in free agency while crafting a roster defined more by youth and potential.
The 2021-22 roster has "the right guys to achieve something really special, so we feel a great deal of optimism, quite frankly," Griffin said, emphasizing that his front-office staff took not just players' skills and styles of play into account, but also how they relate to teammates and coaches. "We've gone out of our way to identify the pieces that didn't fit on the court and off."
But the Pelicans will still need Williamson to stay healthy, which was a challenge his rookie season and could be again. He had surgery to repair a foot fracture this summer. Williamson predicted he'll return for the regular season opener, but whether that timeline holds true remains to be seen.
The addition of versatile center Jonas Valanciunas in a trade with Memphis brings the ability to draw big defenders away from the paint with his shooting range and create more space for Williamson to operate inside. A deal with Charlotte brought in guard Devonte' Graham, who represents a considerable upgrade in 3-point shooting - another way to punish defenses for throwing too many bodies at Williamson.
"The moves we made, I'm very excited about them," Williamson said. "We got new pieces to give us new ways to attack."
Two veteran starters from last season - guard Eric Bledsoe and center Steven Adams - lasted only one season with the club before Griffin dealt them away as part of the Valanciunas trade. The Pelicans also decided against committing major money to restricted free agent Lonzo Ball, instead sending him to Chicago in a sign and trade.
The only projected starter older than 26 is the 29-year-old Valanciunas. The top players on the roster are Williamson, 21, and wing Brandon Ingram, 24.
Five Pelicans were selected by Griffin in the first rounds of the past three drafts. They include Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a projected starter at guard this season and rookie forward Trey Murphy, whose shooting has stood out in summer league and the preseason.
Griffin said center Jaxson Hayes, the eighth overall pick in 2019, has responded to an offseason arrest with renewed focus and tireless work in the gym that should lead to a greater role for him this season.
After having two different coaches older than 60 the past two seasons (Alvin Gentry and Stan Van Gundy), New Orleans now has a first-time head coach in Green who only turned 40 in July and is just six years removed from his 12-year NBA playing career.
"Just a really, really good guy is my first impression," Ingram said of Green, who spent the past five seasons in assistant roles with Golden State and Phoenix, coaching in the finals four times.
"He has a feel for being a player, so it gives a different perspective," Ingram added. "You're actually more confident to go and talk to him because you know he's been in your shoes. He knows how it feels to have the ups and downs of the season and what's going on - on and off the basketball court."
Green sounds open to moving forward with last season's "Point Zion" experiment, in which Williamson would periodically bring the ball up the court and initiate offensive possessions.
The strategy allowed Williamson to showcase his explosiveness on the drive as well as his vision as a passer.
Green said he's open to exploring a variety of new ways for Williamson to affect games - if they show promise quickly.
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