For the New Orleans Pelicans to have a shot at surprising the Los Angeles Lakers, Zion Williamson had to have a huge game. However, in the limelight, the star failed to deliver, resulting in a lackluster effort and a 133-89 crushing defeat.
The Stage Was Set for a Star Showing
This was Williamson’s ideal situation leading up to Thursday night’s in-season tournament quarterfinal match on TNT. The former No. 1 overall choice had the opportunity to shine in front of a national television audience during a high-pressure playoff clash.
When the Pelicans faced the Lakers, a team dominated by veterans like 38-year-old superstar LeBron James, Williamson had a chance to establish himself as the team’s unchallenged leader. If the 23-year-old had had a breakout performance, it would have meant that New Orleans is ready to be guided into championship contention.
But Williamson failed miserably at the crucial moment for his side. In 28 minutes played, he managed a pitiful 13 points on 5-13 shooting and a meager 2 boards. Williamson has been dogged by superstar billing ever since his high school mixtapes became popular online, but this was a huge departure.
Fans Jeer as Williamson Struggles with Conditioning
Williamson appeared totally outclassed in a much-anticipated solo clash against James. He was unable to make any of his usual powerful dunks because he had trouble getting up around the basket.
Williamson looked to be struggling under the weight of his own large size as he lumbered around the court. As he raised the ball slowly, without making any pyrotechnics, the crowd took note and booed him.
When contrasted with James, whose arsenal of offensive drives and pull-up jumpers set the clock back, the difference was startling. James finished with 30 points on efficient 11-21 shooting, showcasing the conditioning that has allowed his late-career excellence.
Pelicans Manhandled in All Facets
Despite the disappointment of Williamson’s absence, the issues plaguing New Orleans went well beyond a single player. In a game that swiftly devolved into a farce, the Lakers were completely superior to them.
The game was decided by a 16-0 run by Los Angeles in the second quarter. Midway through the frame, James exploded for three consecutive three-pointers, igniting the crowd and his squad. The Pelicans were completely outmatched defensively and let the lead grow to 30 points by halftime.
Williamson had minimal support from Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum, who combined for nine points on 7-21 shooting. As a challenge to the rest of New Orleans’ lineup, Los Angeles shut down their leading threats. The Pelicans’ second-worst loss of the season happened without a backup plan.
Charles Barkley Torches Williamson’s Underwhelming Season
After the game, the TNT crew from Inside the NBA shook their heads in disbelief at the national humiliation. As Williamson entered his fourth season in the NBA, analyst Charles Barkley was unflinching in his assessment of his progress.
In an angry outburst, Barkley said that his less-heralded colleagues, CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, were better than him and that he should be the top player.
Astounded that a guy of Williamson’s size and jumping ability wasn’t raking in offensive rebounds, Barkley relentlessly pounded on the point.
He pulls down an average of six boards every game. All season long, he’s only managed two double-doubles,” Barkley remarked. No big man with his level of talent should ever have less than 10 boards. His rebounding average should be 11 or 12 each game.
The fitness and motor skills of Williamson were also called into doubt by the Hall of Famer. “He doesn’t run the floor at all,” Barkley noted, reflecting the fitness worries of the spectators who seen him work his way up the court during the game.
Although it was harsh, Barkley’s criticism added weight to the rising belief that Williamson has not lived up to his promise as a franchise player, despite being taken first overall four years ago out of Duke.
Ingram and McCollum Have Emerged as Pelicans’ Best Players
Unlike Williamson, Ingram and McCollum, who are sprinting with him, are having the best seasons of their careers. The Pelicans were hoping that the breakout performances of 25-year-old Brandon Ingram and 31-year-old CJ McCollum would take them to the next level after their unexpected playoff run last year.
The fact that Ingram is currently averaging 29 points per game on a scorching 63% shooting indicates that it was correct. His savvy off-the-dribble scoring and ability to set up teammates for goals has been crucial in keeping New Orleans in the game.
On the other hand, McCollum has been an ideal complement to Ingram as a backup scorer and playmaker since his trade from Portland last season. An important cog in the backcourt, the seasoned combo guard averages 21 points per game.
While they’ve made progress, Williamson has stalled or gone backward. His three-point and free throw shooting percentages have fallen even further this season, adding to his history of inefficiency as a shooter. Not only is he a hesitant passer, but his assists per game rank sixth on the squad.
Star Potential in Jeopardy if Slow Development Continues
When Williamson was healthy throughout high school and college, he displayed incredible explosiveness and power. Because of his physical attributes, he was a great finisher at the rim, displaying remarkable quickness for someone over 300 pounds heavier than him.
If Williamson wants to become a real star, though, he needs to work on his game and be flexible because his speed will eventually go down. His potential as a point-scoring machine is now limited by his short shooting range, poor passing skills, and weak defensive foundations.
We should also not take superior athleticism for granted, as Williamson’s narrative shows us in the past. Even though they were early gravitational forces, stars like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal continued to be effective far into their 30s. However, in order to prevent deterioration, they committed themselves year after year to excellent conditioning.
Williamson’s notorious struggles with fitness and lack of health are cause for concern. His opportunity to be a franchise player may be slipping away rather than opening if he doesn’t work to hone his abilities, diversify his game, and maintain a healthy physique.
After spending the first overall selection and a maximum contract with their controversial star, the Pelicans will ride his wave for the next decade. With Williamson actively participating and showing signs of improvement, the Pelicans have a chance to become a Western Conference powerhouse.
However, with the disaster of last night, that future appears even more hazy than before.