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2019 Summer League Preview: Zion Williamson set to dance for New Orleans Pelicans

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Fans lost their collective minds when the NBA Lottery gifted New Orleans the first overall pick. Now it’s Zion’s turn to send the city into a frenzy.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Press Conference Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It is time.

Rafiki’s famous line marries perfectly the sentiment New Orleans Pelicans faithful feel as young Simba (Zion) ascends Pride Rock as its new franchise icon.

The ruin and solemn state of the Pride Lands closely mirror that of the Pelicans organization. But with newfound order provided in the body of David Griffin, Trajan Langdon, Swin Cash and Aaron Nelson — or for the purposes of our metaphor: Zazu, Timon, Pumba and Nala — the Pelicans find themselves recollected and confident heading into the 2019-20 season.

Moving past the fallout of the Anthony Davis trade and the promising returns of acquisitions like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, JJ Redick, Derrick Favors and Nicolo Melli, one question renders all others inconsequential:

Can Zion be the next in a line of NBA greats?

Jonathan Wasserman, Lead NBA Scout at Bleacher Report, sure thinks so, asking and detailing why Zion Could Be the Best No. 1 Draft Pick in a Decade.

Yes, that includes Ben Simmons, Karl Anthony-Towns and Anthony Davis.

He’ll immediately enter the league as one of its most destructive athletes, with physical abilities that create a special advantage at both ends, regardless of how refined or polished he becomes.

But it’s been the evolution of his skill set that’s led to elite numbers, a No. 1 overall projection and even greater optimism surrounding his NBA star potential.

With quiet confidence, Zion looks and sounds every bit the mild-mannered hardwood assassin capable of steering an organization toward greatness while keeping a bit of perspective. The 285-pound wrecking ball possesses the size, strength, agility, athleticism and power that none have ever seen.

“Well, I mean obviously, physically he is touched by the hand of God to play this game,” David Griffin said during his post-trade press conference. “He’s a population of one.”

Griffin went on to discuss Zion’s makeup and how intricately the Pelicans newfound organization will tiptoe the balance between treating the number overall pick as both a player and a human.

Griffin further expanded on his patience with the soon-to-be 19-year old (July 6) by addressing the Pelicans own resident franchise caretaker, Jrue Holiday.

“This is Jrue Holiday’s team,” Griffin said on draft night. “And when we made the trade that we made, or are working to complete rather, with a certain player who used to be here with Jrue. We were very cognizant of the fact that this is Jrue Holiday’s team.”

The Pelicans and the city of New Orleans know what it has in Holiday. The front office is hopeful though that the coaching staff can rediscover the upsides of players like Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, develop the incoming rookie class and properly meld JJ Redick and Derrick Favors to the group.

The Pelicans made quiet a bit of noise in assembling a contingency of draft capital, blue-chip quality youth and veteran playmakers and this collection of talent may be good enough to make a playoff run, perhaps even win in round one just as they did one short season ago.

I have detailed why the collection of talent surrounding Zion Williamson is already better than any supporting cast Anthony Davis had during his tenure. But if the Pelicans are to truly contend for the Larry O’Brien trophy, Zion will have to climb the steps of Pride Rock and carry the organization higher than it is has ever dared to climb.

Those first steps begin at Las Vegas Summer League starting Friday on national television against former teammate and the third overall pick, R.J. Barrett. Zion will get the bulk of the attention all weekend long and saying the Thomas and Mack Center is abuzz with excitement to glimpse the rim crusher would be an understatement.

But Zion won’t be alone in his first appearance as a New Orleans Pelican. In fact, Wasserman has three of the top-10 players at summer league in a Pelicans uniform with Christian Wood ranked number two and Frank Jackson, tenth. Kenrich Williams also cracked his top-50.

While Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Marcos Louzada Silva won’t appear until Saturday at the earliest, the Pelicans will still have a wealth of talent around the aforementioned four in the above paragraph. Zylan Cheatham (on a two-way contract) should create quite the stir as well as Trevon Bluiett and Aubrey Dawkins of UCF.

New Orleans should make plenty of waves and earn plenty of attention this weekend, but the conversation will always revert back to the Pelicans’ greatest prospect of ambition. If the Pelicans are to be the next franchise to lay claim to the game’s greatest reward, Zion will have to prove his mettle and fans will get their first glimpse as early as tonight.

Pelicans summer league schedule:

Friday, July 5 - 6:30 p.m. vs. Knicks (ESPN)

Saturday, July 6 - 7:00 p.m. vs. Wizards (ESPN)

Monday, July 8 - 6:30 p.m. vs. Bulls (NBA TV)

Wednesday, July 10 - 4:30 p.m. vs. Cavaliers (ESPN 2)

July 12-15: Playoffs TBD

Las Vegas currently has the Pelicans’ listed as +5000 odds (16th) of making a play for the title according to TopBet Sportsbook.

Based on Zion’s performance, those odds could change as soon as this weekend.

For more on the Pelicans free agency and expectations going into summer league, join Oleh Kosel, David Grubb, Kevin Barrios and David Fisher as they break down these questions and so many more on the latest episode of The Bird Calls!