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Zion Williamson can be face of NBA from right here in New Orleans

Antonio Daniels dropped knowledge on Colin Cowherd’s show yesterday

New Orleans Pelicans v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

So much for a couple of quiet days off for the New Orleans Pelicans.

Yesterday included JJ Redick taking a healthy swipe at David Griffin’s front office in the aftermath of a deadline trade to the Mavericks and a frightening revelation that Zion Williamson was nearly lost for weeks after sustaining a thumb injury against the Celtics. However, let’s focus on the “Zion should go to a winning team/big market” talk that made the rounds earlier this week on the national media circuit.

On March 24th, Colin Cowherd said, “Zion is must see television. He’s the face of the league now that LeBron is hurt.” Tuesday, he advanced things countless steps in an unnecessary direction by pondering whether Zion should ask out of New Orleans at the conclusion of his rookie contract: “I wonder if he does what LeBron wouldn’t do... I think if you ask him today, he would have gone to a Miami Year 5 & demanded a trade.”

It was an odd shortcut considering the Pelicans are currently trending upwards, having won four of five games and six out of their last nine. Fortunately though, New Orleans was allowed to have a voice of reason on that stage. Antonio Daniels, Bally Sports color commentator covering the Pelicans and a regular guest on The Herd, stepped up to the plate yesterday and delivered a wonderful rebuttal.

“Here’s my question, why are we even talking about a young man that is yet to play 70 games going to play elsewhere? First and foremost, because he’s playing in New Orleans. That’s why we’re talking about this. If he was playing somewhere else — if he was playing in L.A. or if he was playing in New York, we would not be having this conversation. When we talk about him in the future of going to play somewhere else, what we are forgetting is what David Griffin and Trajan Langdon have put together here now as far as the future is concerned.

“I’ll tell you this, Colin, I just had a one-on-one with Zion about twenty minutes ago, and one of things he said was the same thing that Lonzo Ball has said. So when you talk about Kira Lewis being 19 years old and Jaxson Hayes being 20 and Zion being 20 and Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, who’s an All-Star, and Josh Hart, who’s 26 years old, so when you talk about that as far as the future is concerned, why are we talking about going to play elsewhere? The future for the New Orleans Pelicans, right now, is a bright one.”

Cleveland Cavaliers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In his sophomore campaign as a 20-year-old, LeBron James wasn’t surrounded by a youthful core that flashed real potential. There wasn’t a 23-year-old All-Star playing alongside or even a prospect offering worthy glimpses. No, four of the next five top scorers after LeBron on the 2004-05 Cavaliers were older: Zydrunas Ilgauskaus (29), Jeff McInnis (30), Ira Newble (30) and Robert Taylor (27). Only Drew Gooden (23) and Anderson Varajao (22) showed any promise that year who were within a few years of LeBron’s age.

Despite the presence of more veterans, LeBron’s Cavs missed the playoffs in each of his first two seasons in the league, and during this time he was already begging for a young star to come join him in Cleveland.

LeBron’s appeals intensified during a late-season Wizards win in which Hughes scored 31 to damage the Cavs’ playoff chances. “We talked about it that whole game,” says Hughes. “He kept saying, ‘Come play with me.’ And I kept saying, ‘Nah, I’m staying in Washington.’”

Well, Larry Hughes did arrive in free agency soon after, but that union never quite worked out as hoped for all parties. Hughes failed to become the sidekick. The same determination was reached on Mo Williams a few years later. There were some deep postseason runs in Cleveland during this stretch, but the makeshift core around James never got over the hump.

Those Cavaliers teams failed to grow into something more than the sum of its parts because the roster builds maintained a shortsighted focus. It’s easy to say in hindsight that LeBron would have been better served by leaving Cleveland earlier, but Zion isn’t headed down the same path.

“This team shouldn’t be talking about titles right now,” Daniels continued to Cowherd. “They should be talking about development right now — which is exactly what David Griffin is doing. He is putting together a young team organically with good drafts. Drafting Nickeil Alexander-Walker Drafting Kira Lewis Jr. Drafting Jaxson Hayes, Zion Williamson and then getting the Brandon Ingram’s, Josh Harts and Lonzo Balls in the AD deal. So no, you shouldn’t be talking about a championship right now. But realistically, how many teams in this league are talking about a championship right now? This is not their championship window. This is the time for them to grow together, to learn together, and to lose, to a certain extent. But let’s see if we’re having this same discussion three or four years down the line when these guys are more experienced.”

Michael Jordan didn’t enjoy a lot of team success early, but once Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were drafted, the Bulls found their stride. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green didn’t enter their championship window immediately, but once they arrived on that doorstep, the wait proved well worth it. And then there’s the team that deserved a much longer leash in recent history.

Miami Heat v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game One Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein /NBAE via Getty Images

In his first two years, Kevin Durant accumulated a 43-121 record in Oklahoma City. The Thunder dramatically improved in his third season though. While I’ll always wonder about the future of this league had the core of Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka stayed together after reaching their first Finals, OKC fielded formidable teams for a few more years and was a great ratings draw consistently afterwards regardless. Durant had no problems with popularity in Oklahoma, and this was before what social media is today.

“Why can’t he be that face of the league here in New Orleans,” Daniels probed Cowherd on why Zion shouldn’t feel the need to leave the Pelicans market for fame or financial reasons. “If we look at bigger markets, you just said it, he has a 2K sponsorship. He has a Gatorade endorsement. He has a brand Jordan endorsement. And this team, meaning the Pelicans, is second as far as national tv games are concerned — one game behind the Lakers. So, what is there to offer that he’s not getting here right now is my question?”

“It’s amazing to me how much the narrative around this young man has changed,” Daniels continued. “Remember last year when everybody’s like ‘oh, you know what, he was overhyped. Why are they playing on national tv all the time? Or, maybe he’s not all about the hype.’ And now the narrative has changed to, ‘oh well, maybe this young man is special.’ And the moment that people start to figure out what we have talked about from day one of training camp, that he is one of one in the history of the sport, now we want to say, ‘oh, let’s move him to a bigger market.’ That’s not fair to the fan base of New Orleans or Zion Williamson and his teammates.”

The burgeoning Pelicans’ superstar is 20 years old. He’s 68 games into his professional career. Repeat those important facts to yourself or to anyone who needs to hear them. Now, please try and gain an understanding of what’s being done to maximize his potential in New Orleans.

New Orleans Pelicans v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Zion already has a young All-Star next to him. There’s several growing point guards who want nothing more than to find him on well-timed passes leading to easy scores. One offers a tantalizing defensive ceiling while carrying outside marksmanship; the other could become a more dynamic scorer than De’Aaron Fox. And don’t overlook the stable of complimentary role players who provide the necessary shooting, rebounding and competitive spirit.

While the frequency of wins is far from its zenith, Zion’s belief has never wavered in this Pelicans team. In warm-ups, the cameras can be counted on to catch that famous smile, and in post-game sessions, he lauds good performances after wins or maintains better days are ahead following defeats. His mood has always been unmistakably positive, and I’ve never seen a player, young or old, genuinely wish the media a good night every single time out.

“If people understood the young man and the heart that he has, the humbleness that he came into this league with and that he still possesses today. In the interview I had with him earlier today, it was all smiles. It was all laughs. He’s incredibly humble. And he’s a joyful young man to be around. He’s fantastic.” — Antonio Daniels

More false narratives were inevitable for a growing superstar in a small market, but to start the nonsense of wanting Zion out of New Orleans when there’s never been more arrows pointing upwards since his arrival is certainly a take.

A very bad take.

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.