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Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram have begun process to unlock full stardom

Stan Van Gundy guiding the Pelicans’ cornerstones to improve their playmaking and defense is the best news of the week

NBA: Miami Heat at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Despite experiencing way more downs than ups since the start of the season, something wonderful happened this past week for the future of the New Orleans franchise.

Stan Van Gundy informed the media after Tuesday’s practice that he has begun the process of grooming both Pelicans’ cornerstones. His hope is that Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson will one day join the finest group of two-way players in the league who will hopefully rival LeBron and AD, Kawhi and PGIII, and Brown and Tatum.

“It’s both about the offense and defense,” Van Gundy said. “They’ve got to — and they’re trying, they really are trying — they’ve got to take on more defensive responsibility, too. We point it out to them, whether it’s LeBron James and Anthony Davis, or Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, or even young guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the best teams, their best players are two-way guys. There’s a lot of people in this league who can put up numbers, but the winning teams, those guys are two-way guys.

“These guys need to improve, as does our whole team, but they need to improve defensively, take on that responsibility, and then defenses are going to load up to them, and then they’re going to have to use their remarkable abilities to get the best shot for our team. Not necessary for themselves, but the best shots for the team. I think if you’re really going back and watching film, it broke down a little bit late last night, but for the most part, both of those guys have been making a really concerted effort to attack but to make the right play.”

In the Pelicans’ victory over the Suns on Wednesday, both Ingram and Zion finished with six assists apiece. History shows that good playmaking numbers for either player has translated into a lot of success for their teams in their young careers.

Player W/L with 5 or more assists W/L with 4 or less assists
Brandon Ingram 45-36 (.556 Winning %) 66-125 (.346 Winning %)
Zion Williamson 4-1 (.800 Winning %) 15-23 (.395 Winning %)

Williamson has posted five or more assists just five time times in his short career, but the positive results are undeniable. With how he can draw multiple defenders, finding the open teammate is crucial in those situations.

Ingram has been a solid playmaker more often thus far, and while a .556 winning percentage is nothing to sneeze at when he’s topped five or more assists, the Pelicans and Lakers are/were definitively more successful with an additional dish added to the total.

In games that B.I. has tallied six or more assists, his teams have combined for a 30-13 record through his five-year career to date. That translates to a .698 winning percentage!

So how exactly is the New Orleans head coach molding his young stars? By setting aside time to watch film and hold meaningful discussions after every contest with both stars — together.

“Well, since we got back off of that road trip, we’ve met after every game, the three of us, and watched film,” Van Gundy said. “So not specifically talking about the pressures, but how defenses are going to play them and load up to them, and their responsibility. I do it with the two of them together because I think when you’re building around two guys their relationship has to start to evolve and develop where they can hold each other accountable. I think their relationship in how they communicate with each other and how they play with each other is very important for our organization going forward. So that’s why we do it together.”

These meetings already appear to be paying dividends for the team. Since the latest home stand began, the Pelicans have posted a 3-2 record in their last five games, including wins over the Bucks and Suns. Ingram and Williamson have not only posted solid assist totals but the team’s defense is showing signs of life.

During the 1-8 stretch, New Orleans gave up an average of 117.8 points and opponents shot 47.3% from the field and 40.0% from the three-point line. During this recently completed home stand, the Pelicans gave up an average of 115.4 points and opponents shot 46.7% from the field and 34.5% from the three-point line. The most noticeable improvement, however, has come with the eye test, especially in relation to Zion’s defensive effort.

Everyone should remember how all too often Williamson looked sluggish, unsure or simply unmotivated in numerous instances earlier this season.

Have a look at several of Williamson’s close-outs and corresponding defensive intensity from New Orleans last game versus the Suns.

Zion’s defense isn’t textbook yet, but the improved effort deserves applause. He’s hustling. He’s focused. He’s contesting shots!

Following the victory over the Suns, Van Gundy told postgame media that he thought Wednesday night was Zion’s “best game of the year, if we’re taking both ends of the floor.”

“That was by far his best defense I have seen him play. He covered a lot of ground. He worked really hard.”

In conjunction, Ingram should also be lauded for turning it up a notch on the non-scoring side of the floor.

“The thing that I’m most pleased with him and Brandon is we know those guys are going to put up numbers,” Van Gundy said after Wednesday’s victory. “The question is, are you going to lead teams to wins? That’s a hard thing to do.

“You’ve got to help the other guys and make them better. That’s what the best players do. The players that lead teams to winning play both ends of the floor and help their teammates on both ends. Those guys did that tonight. And I think they’ve been doing that.”

Williamson and Ingram have undoubtedly turned it up a notch in the playmaking and defensive effort departments. Over the past five games, Zion is averaging 4.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks; Brandon, 4.8 assists, 0.6 steals and 1.2 blocks.

That’s why the best moment of the past week — maybe of the season when it’s all said and done — has to be when the New Orleans head coach revealed that there’s special attention to detail being paid to two growing monsters in the league because some tantalizing results are beginning to show.

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.