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Zion Williamson’s Pelicans trending up, welcome Ja Morant’s Grizzlies

New Orleans swept the season series against Memphis last year

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies have an opportunity to create a great rivalry over the next several years.

With childhood friends Zion Williamson and Ja Morant leading their respective teams, the franchises are in the hands of two of the most exciting young prospects to enter the NBA in years.

Both could be All-Stars in their second seasons.

Both have also had challenges in lifting their teams from the depths that led to them being the first two picks of the 2019 Draft, but their impact has been undeniable.

Friday night, Williamson became the second fastest player to score 1000 points in league history; reaching that mark in just 44 career games. He’s also one of only four players in the NBA averaging at least 20 points, seven rebounds, two assists, and one steal, while shooting better than 55 percent from the floor (Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic).

Meanwhile, Morant joins Jokic, Luka Doncic, and James Harden in a quartet of players putting up at least 18 points, seven assists, and one steal per game.

Last season, the Pels were 3-0 versus Memphis, winning all three games by double figures. This is the first of two meetings in the next 10 days, with New Orleans going on the road Feb. 16.

Williamson averaged 23.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists, and Brandon Ingram was just behind with 23.0 points, 6.0 boards, and 5.0 assists of his own. In addition to his defense, New Orleans will have to replace Jrue Holiday’s 23 points on 56 percent shooting against the Grizzlies.

Those weren’t the “Grindhouse” Grizzlies that the Pelicans made nearly 50 percent of their shots (42.3 pct from 3) against.

Memphis is much improved defensively this season, ranking fifth in the NBA in defensive rating and eighth in points allowed.

The Grizzlies come to New Orleans in the midst of a two-game losing streak, having lost to the Houston Rockets and the Pacers. This, following a seven-game winning streak.

Health and safety protocols will likely keep Grayson Allen and Jonas Valanciunas out of the game, and Jaren Jackson Jr. has yet to suit up this season.

The Grizzlies front line of rookie Xavier Tillman and sophomore Brandon Clarke will be at a severe size/strength disadvantage against Zion and Steven Adams.

Forward Kyle Anderson is having the best season of his career, but he shouldn’t be able to slow down Brandon Ingram if he’s 80 percent as efficient as he was last night.

That’s a pretty good recipe for the Pelicans to extend their own winning streak to three games.

New Orleans has been dominant inside with Williamson leading the NBA in points in the paint and remain in the top five in both offensive and total rebounding.

On the perimeter, the Pelicans need Lonzo Ball to stay in his groove. Ball has been outstanding on both ends of the floor during the team’s four wins over its last six games.

Lonzo is averaging 18.5 points points per game, and making a team-high 52.8 of his three point attempts. He ranks fifth on the team in rebounding (5.0) with a better than 2:1 assist to turnover ratio.

In the Pelicans’ two losses, his averages plummet to 10.5 points and 27.3 percent from distance.

On defense, he’ll harass Morant in an effort to keep him out of the paint. Morant is many things, but a consistent threat from outside isn’t one of them. His game is applying pressure to the opposing defense with his dribble, and Lonzo will be counted on to release that pressure.

Dillon Brooks is long, at 6-7, but has had trouble shooting the basketball all season.

The Memphis defense was at a standstill against the Pacers, and was blasted by the Rockets as they combined to shoot 53.3 percent against the Grizzlies, including a blistering 47.3 percent from deep.

New Orleans is in a better place than it has been in a while. The learning curve still has more ahead than behind; but the effort has been more consistent, and the mistakes far less costly.

It would be premature to read too much into the last two games, other than they represented two very solid efforts.

A win over the Grizzlies would give the Pelicans their first three-game winning streak since Feb. 6-11, 2020. A convincing win could give the team a spark and its fans some hope that New Orleans can still turn a frustrating season into a winning one.

So, a reminder to the home team...Please, don’t feed the bears. And please, do feed Zion in the post.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (9-12) vs Memphis Grizzlies (9-8)

When: February 6, 8:00 p.m. Central

Where to watch: FSNO

Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM

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 @DMGrubb.