Kurtenbach: What Zion, the Pelicans can teach the Warriors in this lost season

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SAN FRANCISCO — The Warriors have been waiting for the 2020 NBA Draft for months. That’s what this lost season is all about.

And on Sunday night, the No. 1 overall pick of last year’s draft and his team provided Golden State a lesson for what they should do with their certain-to-be early selection in June.

Sadly for the Dubs, there is no player like Zion Williamson in this year’s NBA Draft. That’s because there are few players like Zion in the NBA. He’s 13 games into his NBA career and he’s already one of the best players in the game, averaging 22 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes per game. If he ramps up to 36 minutes a night — a typical star workload — his current output would be just shy of 30 points and nine rebounds a game. That’s the kind of output only three other players in the league — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić, and former Pelican Anthony Davis — can match.

The Pelicans are on a roll with Williamson in the lineup, too, winning four of their last five to move within 3.5 games of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. I’d bet on them making the playoffs, and don’t be surprised if they give the likely No. 1 seed Lakers all they can handle in the first round.

Williamson is a phenomenon — a star player with an “it” factor that can’t be fully explained — but he’s proven worthy of the hype. He has already changed the trajectory of the Pelicans franchise and I don’t think it’ll be long until he changes the course of the NBA.

And it’s important to note that the Pelicans didn’t worry about fit, scheme, or style with Williamson when they landed the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft. Zion — referring to him as Williamson feels wrong — was the best player on the board and so they took him and figured out the rest later. It’s working out wonderfully because he’s a wonderful player — perhaps a generational one.

The Warriors need to follow the same rules with their selection this June.

Again, there won’t be a Zion available for selection, but that’s not to say that a player with transcendent talent won’t be available for them to select.

The Warriors need to make sure that they take that player and not someone who might seemingly fit their 2020-2021 needs.

The NBA holds a lottery to determine the draft order, but the NBA Draft itself is a lottery. With the one-and-done rule, the vast majority of the draft’s top prospects are 19-year olds.

Zion is the kind of rare talent that can dominate at that age — the exception that proves the rule: these young players need time to develop. Hell, some of them need more time to literally grow. There will be a lot of those kinds of players in the draft. Patience is necessary.

Because the Warriors — if they still have their selection (it could well be traded) — could take a player that fills a role for a team with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andrew Wiggins. Call that kind of player a high-floor prospect.

But the correct answer for sustained success in the NBA is to go for players with high ceilings. Go big or don’t go at all.

The NBA has dozens of players floating around that can fill a role. Eric Paschall is a strong rookie, but he’s a high-floor, low-ceiling kind of player. The Warriors were able to select him in the second round. If he’s your ninth man, you’re a great team — if he’s starting for you, you’re probably going to be in a position to draft a replacement in June.

For the Warriors, while the near-future might have pressing needs, the long-term need must be to maximize the pick. Taking a player without a chance to be a superstar — even if that potential will take years to materialize — is not maximizing that pick.

The early goings might be rough, but the Warriors will be fine in the short-term — they do not need a 19-year-old to carry a large load next year.

Everyone wants a Zion, and his impact should be noted, but his Pelicans teammate, All-Star Brandon Ingram, represents the strongest case study for what the Warriors should be doing if they have their draft pick come June.

At 22 years old, 2016’s No. 2 overall pick has blossomed into one of the NBA’s best wings, averaging 24 points, six rebounds, and four assists a game. He’s a dude, and while he didn’t have a great game against the Warriors Sunday, there were flashes that showed what his performances all year have announced: he’s found his footing in this league.

The Pelicans are also Ingram’s second team. His breakout is coming in his fourth season in the league. Progress is not linear and his prior team, the Lakers, were not patient enough with him.

Their loss — he and Zion are now arguably the NBA’s best young duo. The Lakers, meanwhile, have gone all-in on a player in his 17th season, LeBron James, and a big man in Davis who is unquestionably great but can’t seem to stay healthy. If the Lakers win a title or two, the swap will leave both teams happy, but the Lakers’ window is shorter than people think while the Pelicans are now a team that appears poised to capture the league’s imagination (and perhaps more) for years to come.

The Warriors should aim to be both teams: Short-term success with a long-term plan behind it.

The Warriors are almost guaranteed a top-five pick in June’s draft given how poorly they’re playing. All but perhaps one of the top 10 prospects in this draft are under 20 years old. That means that they’ll be under 25 by the time they are first free agents, in 2024.

At that juncture, Curry — whose current contract expires in 2022 — will be 36 years old. Thompson and Green will both be heading into free agency at age 34. Wiggins’ contract — bemoaned around the league for its length — will have expired the year prior.

Age only works in one direction. In the coming years, the Warriors will need a new core to emerge.

That’s why this year’s draft pick is so important. If the Warriors use the pick, they cannot select for the here-and-now, they have to pick for that day — distant yet fast approaching — when Curry, Thompson, and Green are no longer in leading the way.

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