When multiple reports surfaced Wednesday afternoon revealing the Pelicans had hired Stan Van Gundy to be their next head coach, one big question emerged.
Is New Orleans ready to run Van Gundy’s patented “form a f—ing wall” defense?
OK, so maybe that isn’t the main concern. The more important question here: Can Van Gundy maximize Zion Williamson’s immense potential?
While the Pelicans possess a number of talented players, including All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, Williamson is the future of the franchise. In just 24 games last season, Williamson averaged 22.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting 58.3% from the field. Had he not missed the first 44 games of his first NBA campaign, he would have challenged the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year.
As Van Gundy himself noted in July when he was still an analyst for Turner Sports, New Orleans was a much different team with Williamson on the floor.
Williamson is also just 20 years old and has a long way to go in his development. He dealt with injury and conditioning issues, which limited his minutes. He often looked lost on the defensive end, though that’s not uncommon for a rookie. He struggled with turnovers when opponents put multiple bodies in his way as he attempted to plow his way to the rim.
Van Gundy won’t be part of the medical staff, but his teaching ability could be huge in boosting Williamson’s basketball knowledge. Pelicans guard JJ Redick, who played under Van Gundy in Orlando, noted on the “All the Smoke” podcast that Van Gundy has an incredibly high IQ and could snag big wins by tweaking his strategies in unexpected ways.
“I always felt like, in a playoff series, I felt like Stan was gonna get us a win,” Redick said. “He was gonna make an adjustment or come up with a game plan. … And it worked a lot of the time. He would always get us a game just because he was so prepared and he worked so hard and he took such responsibility on what he could control. He was great for that.”
While coaching the Magic, Van Gundy helped turn Dwight Howard into one of the most terrifying defensive forces in the league, and he spaced the floor around Howard with shooters at every position. Williamson may not be the same type of player as Howard, but he could have a similar impact as a small-ball center in certain lineups.
But then there’s the not-so-great side of Van Gundy’s experience with Howard. You may remember the infamous interaction between Van Gundy and Howard when the then-Magic coach confirmed reports stating Howard wanted him to be fired.
Shaquille O’Neal also didn’t get along with Van Gundy during his Heat days. Pistons star Blake Griffin was much more complimentary of Van Gundy after Detroit fired him in 2018, but he had one of the best stretches of his career under Dwane Casey the next season.
Can Van Gundy avoid those types of problems with this big man? Establishing trust with Williamson should be high on his list of priorities. Perhaps Redick’s opinion of Van Gundy will go a long way in terms of credibility within the locker room, but Van Gundy must also forge his own bond with Williamson. As he knows, the coach will pack his bags long before the star does.
There aren’t many criticisms to lob at Van Gundy regarding his skills as a tactician, work ethic or preparation. There are some doubts about how he relates to his players and if he will be too abrasive with this group and Williamson in particular.
Van Gundy went viral for wanting to form a wall. Now his primary focus should be building bridges.
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