Josh Hart laments what he figures should’ve been the story of the 2019-20 New Orleans Pelicans.
With No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson missing the first 44 games of the season recovering from right knee surgery, the Pelicans limped out the gates to a 6-22 start that included a 13-game losing streak.
“You’ve seen what his impact, obviously what his presence does,” Hart told reporters Thursday from the Pelicans’ training facility. “We started the season, what, 6-22, and now we’re in position to make a push to the playoffs. He’s done an amazing job. So, the addition of him made us more aggressive, more dynamic. I think if we had him at the beginning of the year, the story wouldn’t be a fight for the eighth seed. It would’ve been, we’re the four or five seed in the West, honestly. That’s my opinion. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to have him in the beginning of the year, but he’s helped turn this organization and this season around.”
For Williamson’s part, he actually relishes the opportunity to author this strange new chapter for the Pelicans against the backdrop of the country’s battle against COVID-19, its reconciliation with systemic racism and the fight against social injustice. The NBA tips off its restart with New Orleans taking on the Utah Jazz on July 30 at Walt Disney World.
With the restart rapidly approaching, the 19-year-old, who turns 20 on Monday, seemed somewhat taken aback.
“It’s crazy, man,” Williamson said. “We’re actually about to go. It’s a lot to process, for sure. But I am excited.”
New Orleans sits 3 1/2 games behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, with eight seeding games in the Orlando bubble to prove its postseason mettle. To prepare for the grind of playing games again after what will be a nearly four-month hiatus, Williamson spent every day during the NBA’s suspension working out with his stepfather, Lee Anderson.
Announced as one of the three cover athletes for NBA 2K21 on Wednesday, Williamson declined to divulge specifics about his workouts. But during the Zoom call with reporters on Thursday, Williamson certainly looked to be in solid physical condition, chiseled and toned like the player we saw for just 19 games this season.
“I’m preparing myself by bonding with my teammates again, talking to them, saying that we’re gonna get through this, and we’re just gonna battle the mental battle within this,” Williamson said. “As far as me also getting ready for that, it’s just conditioning and honing my skills. At first, it was very tough because you still don’t know what’s fully going on with that situation [regarding COVID-19]. Me and my stepdad just found different ways to stay in condition like on-court, off-court, wherever we could find it. I do feel like I’m in good shape right now. Whenever I was on the court, it was just me and my stepdad. I got to get on the court every day.”
Williamson declined to say where he put in the work.
“Can’t tell you all my secrets, man,” he joked. “Some things, I’ve got to keep to myself.”
Whether it all translates to success in Orlando remains to be seen. New Orleans owns a record of 10-9 with Williamson in the lineup and 18-27 without him in the fold.
But in gauging Williamson’s potential impact for the New Orleans’ eight seeding games, look no further than his electrifying regular-season debut in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 22. The rookie scored 17 straight points in the fourth quarter, becoming the only player in history to connect on 4-of-4 from 3-point range in his NBA debut, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Both Williamson and Hart haven’t yet decided exactly what they’ll do in Orlando to advance causes against systemic racism and social injustice. Williamson said he’ll just “continue to learn about it and consult with my parents on the best way to use my platform.”
Hart plans on taking his name off the back of his jersey, but he remains undecided about what to put in its place.
“I don’t think I’m going to keep my name on it. I want to obviously be sensitive about whatever I put on my jersey,” Hart said. “So that’s going to be a conversation I want to have with some more influential people to see the best use, whatever the best phrase or name or whatever I can put on my jersey. I’m definitely gonna change it. But this time is a sensitive time, so I want to make sure I’m able to put whatever I put on my jersey to help benefit the Black Lives Matter movement and not cause any friction.”
When the season was suspended back in March, the Pelicans had won eight of 13 games. David Griffin, the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, views the NBA’s restart as the ultimate test both mentally and physically. After all, the players will set up for a minimum of five weeks at Disney World, where no visitors will be allowed until completion of the first round of the playoffs.
Through the eight seeding games, New Orleans needs to take sole possession of the ninth seed while remaining within four games of No. 8. In order to advance to the postseason for the first time since 2017-18, New Orleans then would need to defeat the eighth seed twice.
It’s also worth mentioning that three Pelicans tested positive for coronavirus last week, and currently are in isolation until they receive two negative test results before they can rejoin the squad.
“Unfortunately, as a play-in team, we’re sort of disproportionately penalized if we have a COVID case because by the time you get players back, you may already be done, and your competitive advantage may be gone,” Griffin said. “We’re playing two really important playoffs teams to start. We had an 18-game cushion before [the season was suspended]. We only have eight [now].”
That adversity doesn’t put a damper on New Orleans’ prospects for Williamson, who is averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 29.7 minutes, while shooting 58.9% from the floor and 46.2% on 3-pointers.
“I think this team can be really special when we’re all healthy,” Williamson said. “It’s just a matter of us coming together, fighting those mental battles, I guess being in the bubble. Just trying to ramp up, that’s the mental battle that I talked about earlier. We’ve got to stick together, keep our emotions high and together, and I think we’ll be fine.”
“The last 12 months have been a different experience, with injury, with all the stuff going on, not playing basketball as much as I’m used to. It’s been a crazy experience. It’s definitely gonna be different [playing without fans in the arena]. I love the fans here in New Orleans. They show so much love. They always come out and support us. So, it is gonna be something different, but that brings me back to what I said on the previous questions: As long as we stick together as a team and give each other energy, I think we’ll be fine.”
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