Do you believe in Ping-Pong balls?
Well, you better.
For the second time in New Orleans Pelicans franchise history, those round, destiny-defining spheres of randomness popped out perfectly and graced the city’s suffering NBA fan base with an impossibly large injection of optimism.
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelican.
It’s as strange to read as it is to think about, and even harder to picture. But it’s true.
The Duke star, and the most coveted college player to enter the draft in a generation is overwhelmingly (like, really overwhelmingly) is likely headed to New Orleans to take part in one of the most inconceivable bounce-backs in NBA history.
Just five months ago, Anthony Davis wanted out. After six losing seasons in seven years, the core of the Pelicans’ universe couldn’t even envision winning in New Orleans and demanded a trade.
The trajectory of the franchise crashed upon Davis' statement, turning the Pelicans into a laughingstock. For weeks, media picked apart the team’s carcass, not just lamenting their losing ways but pondering what city they’d move to and which discarded parts the Pelicans get in return for Davis.
That spurred owner Gayle Benson to take action for the first time since she took control of the team last year, first loudly staking her desire to remain in the city.
Benson then fired longtime general manager Dell Demps and hired executive VP David Griffin to run basketball operations, tasking him to methodically rebuild the franchise with the rubble Davis left behind.
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It was supposed to be difficult. And it was probably going to be slow. But the Pelicans said they were in it for the long haul, no matter how tedious.
Then, in the flash of a single envelope opening, everything changed.
Beleaguered sales representatives at the Pelicans’ Metairie facility leapt out their seats. Casual fans who hadn’t watched a game in months pounded out text messages laced with capital letters and exclamation points.
Just like that, the Pelicans went from the butt of the joke to an envy of the league.
One name. One face. One lightning-fast turnaround for the Pelicans to sell the region and the nation on.
“This is a great night for our city and our fans,” Benson said in a statement. “It is a new beginning as we continue working to build a championship team with David Griffin and Alvin Gentry. And of course Mr. (Tom) Benson continues to look over us all.”
No, Tuesday’s surreal scene in the Hilton Chicago, site of the draft lottery, didn’t earn the Pelicans a single win in the standings. It’s still not even certain exactly what position the 6-foot-7, 285-pounder will play or what he’s capable of in a league now defined by length and shooting.
But right now, it doesn’t really matter. Because Zion Williamson completely reshapes the Pelicans’ image from a team of desperation into a team on the rise.
And their most important audience is Davis, whom the Pelicans will try to convince to re-sign during a sit-down meeting scheduled for later this month. Griffin will show off the freshly refurbished franchise, starting from upper management and trickling down to the most intensely coveted rookie since, well, Davis himself.
Even if AD declines, though, there’s endless possibility now.
A Davis trade can net new assets and stock the roster with an arsenal of players and picks to tool around Williamson and Jrue Holiday, bringing a sense of renewal and hope to a team that until 8 p.m. Tuesday night was largely devoid of it.
Admittedly, there’s a long way to go. Griffin knows it more than anyone.
Rookies don’t win championships, and individual players can’t win on their own.
But absolutely nothing could provide the adrenaline boost and smash-cut perception change that those Ping-Pong balls did. The Pelicans watched as their 6% likelihood turned into one of the most coveted No. 1 picks in recent memory.
And just like that, it’s all different.
No more laughingstock. No more fighting for identity. No more shame.
No, the Pelicans got Zion.
And for now, it’s what matters most.