The best QB in post-Brees New Orleans might be Zion Williamson

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Pelicans forward Zion Williamson
Mar 23, 2021; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) brings the ball up court against Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Smoothie King Center (Photo: Stephen Lew).

It looks like New Orleans has a new star quarterback.

It has been barely two weeks since Drew Brees announced his retirement.

It’s still a few months until Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill’s competition to succeed Brees as the New Orleans Saints starting quarterback heats up.

In the meantime Zion Williamson is showing some Brees-like qualities in leading the New Orleans Pelicans.

More and more Stan Van Gundy is placing the Pelicans offense in the hands of Williamson in a manner not terribly unlike the manner in which Sean Payton placed the Saints offense in Brees’ hands in 2006.

It’s difficult to remember how many times we saw a play-by-play like this of Brees running Payton’s two-minute offense with the Saints game on the line:

Brees complete to Kamara for 12 yards
Brees complete to Thomas for 10 yards
Brees complete to Smith for 15 yards
Brees hands off to Kamara for 5 yards
Brees spikes the football
Lutz kicks game-winning field goal as time expires

Now consider what Williamson did down the stretch against the visiting Dallas Mavericks last Saturday. He scored or assisted on the Pelicans’ last 14 points, turning a precarious three-point lead into a nine-point victory.

2:47: Williamson driving layup
2:17: Williamson assist on Alexander-Walker 3-pointer
1:51: Williamson driving layup
1:23: Williamson basket
1:04: Williamson assist on Alexander-Walker 3-pointer
:34.5: Williamson makes two free throws

Kinda translates, doesn’t it?

“Every read, he’s making the right read,” guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker said after Williamson finished with 38 points and six assists.

Sounds pretty Brees-like, don’t you think?

That effort fell one point short of Williamson’s career-high 39-point game in a loss to Denver. He followed those efforts with a 28-point effort in a 115-109 victory at Boston on Monday.

The Pelicans, who return to the Smoothie King Center to face Orlando on Thursday and Atlanta on Friday, have quietly won four of five.

The position that Brees played during his Hall of Fame career and the one that Williamson is playing much of the time now aren’t identical, but they do have similarities.

Both require good judgment, which includes an ability to objectively recognize when it’s wiser to trust a teammate rather than oneself to finish a play and when the responsibility of being the most effective playmaker on the team requires doing it primarily yourself.

In Brees’ case that might have meant deciding when to switch from a pass to a run at the line of scrimmage, when to check down and dump a pass off to a running back or trust himself to zip a pass into a small window well up the field.

In Williamson’s case that might mean choosing between finishing a play himself or providing a better opportunity for a teammate to do so.

In his last 21 games, Williamson has averaged 29. 2 points and 4.2 assists while shooting 68 percent on field goals.

“I want to hunt for the best shot and get everyone involved,” Williamson said after a win against the Lakers last week. “I want to make the best play that is going to help us win. Sometimes that’s knowing when to shoot it, when not to shoot it, when to make the pass, when not to make the pass. I just want to win. Simple as that.”

You can practically hear those words in Brees’ voice, can’t you?

By the way Williamson isn’t technically a point guard because he’s listed as a forward. And he doesn’t really fit the traditional description of what has become known as a “point forward” because those guys are generally lanky wing players whereas the Pelicans list Williamson at 6-foot-7, 284 pounds and he generally hangs out around the basket when he’s not assuming the role of primary ball handler.

Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin called Williamson “one of one,” meaning he’s unique.

“This is not a big,” Griffin added. “This is a playmaker, and you have to treat him as such.”

After Saturday’s game, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle described Williamson as “a Shaquille O’Neal-like force of nature with a point guard skill-set.”

When told of the comparison, Williamson called it “an honor,” but added, “I’m trying to be the first and only Zion.”

Van Gundy’s plan going into the season was to use Williamson at the point periodically to test the defense and see what happened, not unlike how Payton started giving Hill periodic plays at quarterback to take advantage of his distinctive skill-set.

“I knew going into the season we would run some plays with him handling the ball,” Van Gundy said. “Did I think we would just have him be the primary ball handler the entire fourth quarter of close games? No, I didn’t have that expectation.”

Van Gundy knows that when he lets Williamson run the offense no individual defender is going to stop Williamson from getting to the basket without fouling him. Williamson might miss the shot, but he’s making 62 percent of his shots for the season, or he might be imperfect at the foul line (he’s shooting 71 percent on free throws).

But no individual is capable of legally preventing him from getting to where he wants to get.

“You have to have a lot of courage to stand in there and get run over by that guy,” Carlisle said.

If opponents choose to devote two or three or even four defenders to Williamson, which has happened, they will have to leave one or more of his teammates unguarded.

And Williamson is a good – and even more importantly a willing – passer.

Williamson will read the defense, analyze each option’s likelihood of success in a split second and attempt to execute the most promising one – and succeed at an unusually high rate.

Remind you of anyone?

Williamson is in his second professional season and has played in 68 games, less than one traditional NBA season.

And this new role is still in its formative weeks.

So as New Orleans reluctantly adjusts to life without Brees, there is a new star quarterback on the hardwood to help fill the void.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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