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Zion Williamson’s mind, body and soul echo a player ready to lead the New Orleans Pelicans

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Highlights from the first practice of training camp

Zion Williamson was without physical limitations, after having passed his conditioning test with flying colors, as he and the rest of the Pelicans experienced Stan Van Gundy’s impressive amount of knowledge up close and personal during the team’s first day of practice together.

“Defense, defense, and more defense,” Williamson replied to a media member’s initial Zoom question yesterday when describing the tutelage of the new head coach in town.

The Pelicans focused exclusively on the defensive end for three hours, but there were no complaints from the players regarding Van Gundy’s methodology.

“For the first 30-40 minutes, it was just him breaking everything down what we’re going to do and then we got after it for like two hours,” Williamson said. “Like I said, we got a lot done. But the first day was great and I’m excited to come back to tomorrow.”

16 players on the roster participated in the half-court defensive drills, with Will Magnay in the process of getting to New Orleans from Australia, Naji Marshall expected to join the team in some capacity on Monday and Willy Hernangomez awaiting a work visa. Josh Hart didn’t partake in any full-court work, but the issue doesn’t sound concerning, per ESPN’s Andrew Lopez.

Van Gundy admitted that the team didn’t get through his entire practice plan for Sunday, including some 5-on-5 pick-and-roll work, but that’s fine in the grand scheme of things. An important foundation needs to be built first.

“Day one you want to set the tone — whatever your tone is that you want to set,” Van Gundy said. “And for us, it was to put the defense first and foremost. I generally actually like to get some offense in so we can play a little bit more organized basketball in and play our defense against that, but I thought it was important this year — with me coming in new — that we went right to the priority first. I didn’t want to be out there walking through a lot of offense and things like that.”

Van Gundy is renowned for being an old school coach. He doesn’t believe in skipping steps, especially on a young roster. That may be a problem for some individuals, but his approach was welcomed with open arms by the Pelicans.

“I think it’s a great quality because that’s just how I was trained: very old-school,” Williamson said. “Always going to be on you. Always expecting greatness from you. Never satisfied. Coming to the gym with the idea that we’re going to get better today. It may be tough, some days may be easier, but always coming into the gym with the idea that we’re going to get better today.”

Brandon Ingram, the franchise’s other cornerstone, also applauded Stan Van Gundy’s method of teaching after Sunday’s practice to media.

“The first thing I noticed getting into practice, to be with Stan, you have to be mentally focused,” Ingram said. “Whether we’re going up and down, whether we’re sitting there for fifty minutes and just listening to him talk, you’ve got to be locked in.

“Today was basically a teaching day for us. I think he did a great job in teaching everything from top to bottom on the defensive end, our assignments, from the guard position, from the wing position, from the big position, in a way that everybody understood it. He took his time on it. Rather than the physical part of us going against each other all day long, we stopped and got everything right.”

A tedious approach is going to be necessary at times, especially throughout this training camp. After last season’s team gave up an average 117.1 points (4th worst mark in the league), placing a greater amount of emphasis on defense and teaching its basics are requirements. If the Pelicans have hopes of vastly improving upon their 30-42 mark from the 2019-20 campaign, they’re going to need to make substantial inroads with stopping opponents. There’s plenty of motivation behind the thought process, too.

“Truth be told, nobody likes to lose,” Williamson said. “We had a losing record. Nobody wants that. {I’m} going to have to do things outside of my comfort zone — encourage my teammates, hold everyone accountable — and I expect them to do the same for me. We want to have a winner’s mentality.”

Honestly, the level of maturity Zion exhibited yesterday in all of his answers was remarkable. Last year, he treaded lightly, as all rookies tend to do; however, a week out from his first preseason game in his sophomore season, he’s not only shown an immense hunger but also a keen sense of understanding. He knows what needs to be done to vault the Pelicans up the standings, including showing the world the real Zion again.

“I’ll do whatever the team needs me to do,” Williamson said. “Offense or defense, no matter what it is, I’m just a competitor. When I’m healthy and I’m competing, I’m just a different kind of player. I think that’s the player everyone fell in love with.”

A big stumbling block from last season wasn’t just Zion’s unavailability, it was also his limitations. He once again mentioned to media just how difficult it was for him to find a comfort zone when his minutes came in short bursts. Fortunately, all restrictions appear to be a thing of the past.

“It’s going to be a lot different,” Williamson said. “Coach Van Gundy and I have talked, and from what I know now, there’s no restrictions. None.”

New Orleans’ head coach confirmed the notion. Williamson’s body is not expected to derail him or the team.

“He’s got no limitations in practice, so that’s a good thing,” Van Gundy said. “He passed his conditioning test easily, which was a good thing. We had him do some running; a three-minute run on the court. Everybody passed it. He passed his very easily. He and Nickeil probably did theirs the easiest — I don’t mean easy, but exceeded their goal by the most.”

One interesting item of note regarding Williamson and Van Gundy being on the same page is that they seem to be in the midst of developing a strong bond.

“I’ve really enjoyed talking to him over the last six weeks or whatever — seven weeks,” Van Gundy said. “He’s clearly a very intelligent guy and I’ve enjoyed talking to him both about himself and his game, and the team.”

In talking to both guys yesterday, one got the sense of a growing mutual respect for one another. Don’t underestimate this development. One of David Griffin’s biggest hurdles was perceived to be finding a head coach who would connect with Zion on a really good level.

“It’s a big job with Zion. It’s a really big job. Not that Zion’s hard to handle, but it’s more about, this is the guy that’s got to motivate him.” — Brian Windhorst

The latest edition of the New Orleans Pelicans have spent a grand total of three hours together on the court, but it’s hard to downplay the positive vibes. There’s a new head coach in place whose important teachings are already being heeded...

“We did a lot of defensive work. In fact, that’s all we did...They got through it well, with good effort and energy.” — Stan Van Gundy

...and a generational talent who understands that winning requires a significant departure from yesteryear.

“A defense that wins us ballgames. That’s the defense that we need.” — Zion Williamson

Amen.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.