Zion is no “savior” but he’s the face of a new era for Pelicans

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Zion

The excitement that began when the New Orleans Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery reached its apex on Thursday evening with an eruption in Fulton Alley. Once NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that Duke freshman Zion Williamson was finally and officially a New Orleans Pelicans, the party escalated.

Though it isn’t official just yet, the trade of Anthony Davis blew the final clouds of last season’s misery away. No amount of humidity or red-clad fans were going to make yesterday anything less than a celebration.

Watching Williamson embrace both his moment, and his new adopted home town was touching, moving the 6-7, 285 lb man-child to tears, as well as many of those watching at home and in the streets.

“Hearing my name called and I was able to make it on stage without a tear, shake the commissioner’s hand, but in the interview my mom was standing beside me, and my emotions just took over,” said Zion.

A lot of emotions took over in a city that has had a tumultuous relationship with its basketball team since the day it arrived.

Baron Davis, Jamal Mashburn and company never really wanted to be here. They were Charlotte’s team, not ours.

Hurricane Katrina threatened to end the relationship prematurely, sending the franchise into the temporary embrace of a too-friendly Oklahoma City.

New Orleans endured George Shinn and the breakup of the “Crescent City Connection.” It rose again with the arrival of Davis and survived seven ultimately disappointing seasons; hoping against hope that the next season would be the one when the Pels got it right.

In late January, it was hard to keep that faith. But here we are, filled with hope once again.

As the old saying goes, “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

Though it has been deemed inevitable, the coronation of Zion Williamson may be a bit premature. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said as much in his post-draft comments Thursday night.

“This is Jrue Holiday’s team,” declared Griffin without hesitation. “Zion is going to be a part of learning how to win at a really high level, and if at some point the baton gets passed, in terms of who’s expected to carry us to win games, it will.”

“That’s not now. This is a 19-year old kid. So, we’re gonna take time with this.”
This approach is a dramatic departure from the strategy employed by the franchise as it attempted to build too quickly around Anthony Davis with “young veterans,” a phrase that now elicits eye-rolls whenever it is spoken.

Griffin has chosen a different path. He’s building this team around a philosophy, not just a player. A philosophy guided by head coach Alvin Gentry, designed to capitalize on the defensive abilities and athleticism seemingly in abundance right now.

“There’s never going to be any question as to what we are,” Griffin said of his team’s identity. Stylistically what happened (in the draft) is all about Alvin Gentry and his system, and the fact that we know what it looks like to win at the highest level with Alvin….We know how to build to that system.”

After selecting Texas freshman center Jaxson Hayes and Virginia Tech sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker in the first round, and Brazilian forward Marcos Louzada Silva, the Pelicans have put together an incredibly young roster, Holiday and E’Twaun Moore are the only two players over the age of 25. The team’s average age is just over 21 years old. As currently constructed, the Pelicans may be more suited to reach the Final Four next season than the NBA playoffs.

The youth and potential are intoxicating though, particularly to Williamson. “What excites me most is the fact that they’re young and they’re close to my age so they can help me a lot more, like how to deal with this transition,” he said. “I think we can build something over there.”

In order to do that, the addition of experience is nearly as important as adding talent.

“When you look at how young we are,” said Griffin, “we’re going to need culture driver veterans, and I think that’s what we’re going to continue to focus on, not just guys who are good people, but who really genuinely, vocally, and actively drive culture, who also fit with what we need.”

“There’s a reason for everybody to be excited. I think the thing that I would say (to the fans) is ‘trust us.’ Stick with us through this. You’re not going to know in advance how the dots connect, but we’re going to connect them. So stick with us. Don’t expect it to happen overnight, and if you’re willing to invest in the long haul, let’s dance.”

With Williamson, Holiday, an intriguing collection of young talent, possibly more than $30 million in cap space, Gayle Benson’s financial commitments, and a highly-respected front office in place, the Pelicans should be in position to attract just the type of seasoned players who can be serious contributors to the team’s success.

But make no mistake, Zion Wiliamson may not be the “savior” today. However, a player described as incomparable by so many is expected to help lead the Pelicans to heights they’ve never reached or imagined before.

Soon those broad shoulders will carry more than just the hopes of a fanbase, but the weight of a franchise as well. Griffin is certain that Williamson is capable of doing both.

“Physically, he’s touched by the hand of God to play this game,” Griffin beamed. “He’s a population of one…This is a kid with focal gifts, but his makeup is “we” oriented.

“I think everything he cannot do he will learn, and we will never teach anybody to be what he is as a competitor. That’s God-given.”

The name Zion means “highest point” in Hebrew. An apt word to describe Williamson’s seemingly supernatural leaping abilities and where his arrival in New Orleans has brought us all.

It is also the biblical term for “promised land.” It would be the answer to many a prayer if Zion, Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and the rest can bring New Orleans there.

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David Grubb

Featured Columnist

David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…

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