NEW ORLEANS — Zion Williamson is healthy again and the New Orleans Pelicans have high hopes for making the Western Conference playoff field as the regular season arrives.
Their optimism stems from their 23-14 record from the beginning of the previous regular season until Williamson’s season-ending hamstring injury on Jan. 2.
Williamson has averaged nearly 26 points per game and will be joined by a formidable starting lineup that also features guard CJ McCollum and wing Brandon Ingram.
But the 2019 first-overall draft choice out of Duke has yet to play more than 61 games in a season and has played fewer than 30 games in three of his first four NBA campaigns.
Last season: 42-40, capturing the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference. Lost to the Oklahoma Thunder in the Western Conference play-in.
Coach: Willie Green (3rd season with Pelicans, 78-86)
What to expect: The Pelicans are confident they can be among the best teams in the Western Conference if their stars — Zion Williamson in particular — can stay healthy. Their optimism stems from their 23-14 record from the 2022-23 regular season opener through last Jan. 2, when Williamson went out for the season with a right hamstring injury. Williamson will be flanked by a formidable starting lineup that also features guard CJ McCollum and high-scoring wing Brandon Ingram. Defensive standout Herb Jones also is likely to start along with center Jonas Valanciunas. Another option in the starting lineup, depending on how New Orleans matches up with a particular opponent, will be third-year pro Trey Murphy, who is among the club’s top 3-point shooters and who also dunks with enough panache to have been invited to the dunk contest at last season’s NBA All-Star weekend. The Pelicans have made the play-in two seasons in a row. This season, they aim to bypass the play-in and advance straight to the NBA playoffs by finishing in the top six in the conference.
Departures: G Josh Richardson, C Jaxson Hayes, C Willy Hernangomez, G Garrett Temple.
Additions: C Cody Zeller, G Jordan Hawkins.
Player to watch: Williamson. When healthy, the versatile and explosive, 6-foot-6, 285-pound power forward has been a reliable scorer, averaging nearly 26 points per game for his career. With his ability to handle the ball, along with his unusual quickness and jumping ability for his size, he is a highlight waiting to happen and has been twice named an All-Star. The Pelicans also intend to experiment with playing Williamson at center when matchups allow, given his demonstrated ability to score in the post and also to set up open teammates when multiple defenders collapse on him. However, the 2019 first overall draft choice out of Duke has yet to play more than 61 games in a season and has played fewer than 30 games in three of his first four NBA campaigns — one of which he missed entirely. This offseason he changed his routine by spending much of his time in New Orleans at team headquarters, working out under the supervision of team personnel. Time will tell if that improves his odds of being reliably available throughout the season.
Season opener: Oct. 25 at Memphis.
FanDuel Sportsbook NBA title odds: 42-1.