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NBA Betting: The Debut of Zion Williamson


Tonight, the moment so many NBA fans and bettors have been anticipating since the season began, will finally come to pass. Generational talent and 2019 top-overall draft pick Zion Williamson will make his NBA debut at home against the San Antonio Spurs. Let’s take a look at New Orleans and Zion, and what we may expect when Williamson begins his NBA career. 

New Orleans is currently listed as a 3.5-point favorite and one has to wonder if that includes a Zion bounce. New Orleans is 17-27 SU on the season and only 8-13 on its home floor. The Spurs have been marginally better than the Pelicans this year, posting a 19-23 record through 42 games. Whether Zion is a factor or not, this line probably would have been lower a couple weeks ago. The Pelicans, however, have gone 5-2 SU and 6-1 ATS over their last seven games. For the season, New Orleans has a net rating of -3.3 and over these last seven games, the team has an improved net rating of +1.4. That is still not a great number, and suggests that the team has perhaps overachieved in the win-loss column during this run. The offense can take most of the credit for the better results. New Orleans’ offensive rating over the last seven games is an impressive 114.3, tenth in the NBA in that span. For the season, it sits at 109.3. The Pelicans have hit the 120-point mark in five of those games. 

While New Orleans still sits three and a half games back of Memphis for the last playoff berth out West, the Pelicans have done just enough in recent times to make a run to the playoffs possible. Now, the team gets its new franchise player back for what it hopes is a solid second half of the year. The truth is, this team was built with Zion in mind. With him in the lineup, the whole thing just makes so much more sense. New Orleans has, Jrue Holiday, a high-quality lead guard, sharpshooter J.J. Redick, and a new star in wing Brandon Ingram. Add in Derick Favors, who will provide good defense at the center position when he returns, and play-making guard Lonzo Ball, and you’ve got a lineup that looks like it belongs in the playoffs. What jumps out most is the size, length, and athleticism of this group, particularly when it is supplemented by the other-worldly Williamson. 

Ingram and Holiday are both fairly high-usage players. Ingram has a usage rate of 28.6% and Holiday comes in at 25.6, ranking the two players 26th and 49th in the NBA, respectively. However, adding Williamson to the mix should not be all that difficult, because there’s no reason to think he particularly needs the ball in his hands, and certainly he does not right away. What makes his and New Orleans’ prospects so bright from the off, is that Zion projects as a top-level secondary scorer. That’s not to suggest he won’t pile up the points, but rather, that he will put up good counting stats by virtue of simply being on the floor. His athleticism is so overwhelming, and his efficiency so high, that he should be able to fit in alongside the other two, without rocking the boat.  

To be sure, there’s still reason for caution with Williamson. First, it’s clear that he will be micro-managed, especially as he settles in. It will be interesting to see how long it takes him to show the freedom of movement that helped make him so special at Duke. Much has been made of New Orleans’ attempt to rework the way that Zion moves on the floor, and there’s a chance that there’s an adjustment period from the days where he would just fly around the floor, fancy-free, having his way. This could be exacerbated on the defensive end of the floor. While he projects to be a good defender, much of what can make him great on that end is precisely the athletic superiority that may have to be somewhat reined in.  

It’s been widely-known that Williamson has been desperate to start playing, but the decision to bleed him in at this particular juncture seems both purposeful and prudent. The Pelicans play five games over the next ten days, but there is at least a day of rest for the team between each game. It’s uncertain that Williamson will play in each of these games, but he will at least not be restricted by any back-to-backs as he gets up to speed. Also, while this upcoming stretch does include difficult games against Denver and Boston, the Pelicans also get the Spurs, in addition to Cleveland and Memphis. The Grizzlies game is of note because that’s exactly who New Orleans is chasing for the last playoff spot. There’s no doubt that the organization hopes that Zion is fully up and running by that important tilt. 

While it may be smartest to pass on betting on tonight’s game, and instead sit back and see what Zion can do, it would be very tough to bet against New Orleans in this spot. The entire city has been waiting for this moment since the night of the draft lottery, and the arena will be packed and electric. Williamson’s teammates will be very motivated to help put on a show, and there should be a lot of positive energy on display from this group, which has managed to dust itself off after 1-7 start to at least give itself a chance to get into the postseason.