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New Orleans Pelicans

Can the New Orleans Pelicans build a title contender around Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson?

Nov. 24, 2020 is a date that that will mark as a transitional point in New Orleans Pelicans franchise history.

That is, of course, the date on which the franchise officially traded Jrue Holiday to the Milwaukee Bucks in a deal that returned a historic haul of first-round picks to supplement the future of the franchise.

That future revolves around Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson.

At 23, Ingram is just scratching the surface of the type of player he can become. In a breakout season in which he averaged 23.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists over 62 games, Ingram earned the first All-Star selection of his career, was named the league's Most Improved Player and was rewarded accordingly this offseason with a five-year max deal worth up to $195 million.

In limited action, the 20-year-old Williamson has looked like every bit of the generational talent he was hyped to be prior to entering the NBA. Despite unique circumstances that limited his time within New Orleans' rotation, Williamson finished his rookie season with averages of 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists in just 24 games.

With the clear-cut duo of the future set in New Orleans, it begs the question: Can Williamson and Ingram be the 1-2 punch for a championship team? The answer, as you might imagine, is a little complex.

If it feels like you haven't seen these two on the floor together much, it's because you haven't. The Pelicans' duo suited up together just 22 times last season, sharing the floor for a grand total of 408 minutes. Given the changes surrounding the team, the above sample size is far too small to get into the numbers comparing how Zion played with Ingram on the floor vs. his play when Ingram was on the bench.

In addition to Holiday's departure, New Orleans has hired a new head coach in Stan Van Gundy, who brings an entirely new philosophy on both ends of the floor.

As NBA.com's Scott Rafferty outlined back when Van Gundy was hired, Williamson is likely to be much more involved as the roll man in pick-and-roll situations. With Holiday's departure, Ingram can step into an even larger role as the ball handler in such situations, something he did at a career-best rate last season, ranking in the 65th percentile with an average of 0.90 points per possession.

It's not the prototypical pick-and-roll duo but if that's something that Van Gundy emphasizes on the offensive end, it's a quick way for the two to develop chemistry in a new system.

You really don't have to look much further than the numbers to see that both Ingram and Williamson have an innate ability to fill it up.

Perhaps the biggest development from Ingram in 2019-20 was that he attempted over six 3s per game at a 39.1% clip, showcasing a commitment to growth as a 3-point shooter. With Pelicans shooting guru Fred Vinson being retained by Van Gundy on the coaching staff, expect more progression from Ingram, who will undoubtedly space the floor for New Orleans, allowing Williamson to continue his dominance of the paint.

To think that at 6-foot-6, Williamson was one of the league's most dominant paint scorers in a year where he was still learning the NBA game is a scary prospect moving forward. Just as Ingram should progress and grow offensively as a shooter, so should Williamson in all facets of his offensive game.

The complex answer to the above question surrounding these two anchoring a championship roster is completely dependent on how the team builds moving forward.

In moving Holiday, New Orleans is now largely built around a core that is of the same developmental timeline, with two 20-year-olds in Williamson and Jaxson Hayes, a 22-year-old in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and two 23-year-olds in Ingram and Lonzo Ball.

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Despite already having Ball and Eric Bledsoe, the Pelicans used their lottery pick to select 19-year-old Kira Lewis, a speedy point guard that will push the pace.

Thanks to the hauls received in return for Anthony Davis in 2019 and Holiday in 2020, New Orleans is set to dominate the first round of the NBA Draft through 2027, giving it the ability to tailor its roster to the strengths of its young duo. The upcoming season gives the coaching staff - and front office - an idea of what will and won't work around the two franchise cornerstones.

The fit between Williamson and Ingram isn't exactly complicated, but it is unique.

In a transitional year like this one, the focus should consist of plenty of trial and error to ensure that this duo is placed in the absolute best situations to thrive for years to come. Fewer restrictions on Zion also will give Van Gundy the freedom to split their time, even going as far as to ensure at least one of them is on the floor at all times, which could also work in their favour as they'll each have time as the feature man in the offence throughout the course of a game.

In a crowded Western Conference, it will be admittedly difficult for the Pelicans to emerge to the top 10 in order to contend for a playoff spot but with Ingram's five-year commitment, this upcoming season is part of a much much bigger picture.

In its 18-year history, the New Orleans franchise has won a total of two playoff series and never advanced to the conference finals. They drafted Chris Paul at 20, and Anthony Davis at 19 but never have they had a young duo worthy of excitement like Williamson and Ingram.

When asked about Ingram at media day, Williamson told reporters, "me and him have a great relationship and honestly, we're just excited to make some moves and try to win. That's as simple as I can put it: We wanna win together."

Maybe it does end up being that simple.

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