Zion Williamson Pelicans
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The man. The myth. The legend. New Orleans Pelicans rookie No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson will make his long-anticipated regular-season debut Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs

Williamson missed the first 44 games of the season with a knee injury and will be on a minutes restriction early on. Even then, his return is big news for both the Pelicans and the broader NBA.

Here’s why: It’s not hyperbole. Williamson is the most pro-ready rookie we’ve seen enter the Association since LeBron James back in 2003. His return to action will shake up the Western Conference playoff race as we know it.

Pelicans success: After starting the season with a 6-22 record, New Orleans has won 11 of its past 16 games and is right in the thick of the playoff race heading into the second half of the season.

  • This span has seen New Orleans knock off current playoff teams in that of the Nuggets, Rockets, Pacers, Jazz and Grizzlies. It’s not like they are beating bottom-end teams.
  • By virtue of this recent run, New Orleans finds itself just 3.5 games out of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. It’s been a dramatic turnaround.
  • We’d also be ignorant to ignore the fact that those ahead of New Orleans in the standings are not necessarily world-beaters.

The other contenders: Looking at the standings, there’s a clear path to postseason basketball for the Pelicans.

  • Memphis is currently the eighth seed at 20-23 on the season. Ja Morant is playing out of his mind as a rookie, but this success does not seem sustainable. After winning seven in a row, Memphis lost to New Orleans by 10 on Monday.
  • Sitting as the ninth seed, the San Antonio Spurs could very well be looking to sell off DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge ahead of next month’s NBA trade deadline. Of their 19 wins, only seven have come against winning squads.
  • It goes without saying that the 19-26 Portland Trail Blazers are a shell of their former selves. Heck, it took a 61-point performance from Damian Lillard at home earlier this week to fend off the league-worst Golden State Warriors in overtime. Let that sink in for a second.
  • Sitting as the 11th seed, the Phoenix Suns are one of the teams that should concern New Orleans. They have similar young talent with Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker.

The Pelicans “supporting” cast: This recent success in NOLA without Williamson lends credence to the idea of sustained success for the Pelicans.

  • Acquired in the Anthony Davis trade this past summer, Brandon Ingram is playing at an All-Star level. The dude is averaging 25.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists on 48% shooting from the field.
  • Jrue Holiday has joined Ingram in averaging north of 20 points per game. Despite previously being on the trade block, common logic suggests that NOLA will hold on to its All-Star caliber point guard.
  • After being benched earlier in the season, Lonzo Ball has picked it up big time. The former Lakers star is averaging 16.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 8.9 assists over the past 11 games. It’s not a coincidence that New Orleans boasts a 7-4 record during that span.

Bottom line

With those three players currently performing at an exceptional level, New Orleans has been able to overcome a disastrous start to the season.

Each of these players, primarily Mr. Ball, will be impacted big time by Williamson’s return to the court.

Given the success New Orleans has had over the past month or so, it is getting Williamson back at the right time. Should the big man live up to expectations, it would not be a surprise to see the Pelicans inch in as the seventh or eighth seed out west.

If that is indeed the case, one of the top teams in the Western Conference (cough, Lakers) could be in for one heck of a first-round playoff series.

Everything is coming together for New Orleans at the exact right time.