There was an air of optimism around the New Orleans Pelicans franchise heading into the 2021-22 season: Zion Williamson was coming off of an All-Star season and Brandon Ingram was a year removed from an All-Star appearance.
But recovery from offseason foot surgery has kept Williamson out of the lineup to start the season. And with a 6-foot-6, 284-pound hole in the Pelicans rotation, the new pieces have struggled to complete the puzzle.
"The biggest thing is in everybody's role is we're asking guys to do more," Pelicans coach Willie Green said.
As Williamson gets closer to making his season debut, he'll join a team that is off to one of the worst starts in franchise history. His return will bring some much-needed stability to the young core, but the Pelicans are looking to follow the 2020-21 Washington Wizards and become just the fourth team since the ABA/NBA merger to make the playoffs after starting 6-17.
"We haven't had Z this season. [We're] really waiting for him. We need him," Valanciunas said. "He's gonna be the big piece for us offensively, defensively. The game is gonna change in a good way, big time."
With Williamson injured, roles have changed and New Orleans has struggled to find consistency.
The biggest change has been the use of Valanciunas and Graham. Valanciunas has been the Pelicans' most steady player this season, averaging 19.3 points and 12.4 rebounds per game -- a career high in scoring and just shy of his career-high 12.5 boards last season.
"We're always asking to take one to two steps higher than what they would be if they were fully healthy and that's okay," Green said. "Because they are getting great opportunities. They are getting in-game experience. And once we're whole, we'll be that much better for those guys having the experiences that we've had."
Those experiences, however, haven't translated to victories. New Orleans is next to last in the Western Conference and has lacked a closing presence on the floor.
Valanciunas is averaging 31.6 minutes per game this season. His previous high for a season came last year when he averaged 28.3 minutes per game with the Memphis Grizzlies.
The 6-foot-11 center has been spacing the floor slightly more than Adams did a year ago, shooting 30-of-58 from deep in 23 games -- a league-leading 51.7%. Last season, Adams had three 3-point attempts and all were last-second heaves.
Graham was better on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season than Lonzo Ball (42.3% to 40.2%) and was viewed as a better fit next to Williamson running the show on offense.
The point guard has had to take on more of a scoring burden with the first unit, something that the Pelicans may have been able to avoid with their healthy All-Stars.
"Obviously lineups have been changing, guys are in and out," Graham said while acknowledging the spot lineups the Pelicans have been forced to use this season. "We'll have more balance and more defined roles. When you're missing two All-Stars on any team, especially a young team, you're gonna struggle."
Though Ingram says his offensive role changes just slightly when Williamson plays, he's watched Valanciunas and Graham embrace their bigger roles.
"They've been taking on more responsibility," Ingram said. "Devonte' has to be the head of everything we're doing, making sure we're in line. Jonas being on that backline, he's gotta talk on the defensive end. We're asking a lot out of him to score right now. He's playing a lot of minutes. It's important to stay locked in."
Another player whose role has changed early on is Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The third-year guard was set to become the team's sixth man this season, but the Pelicans opted to add Alexander-Walker into the starting lineup to give them a scoring punch in Williamson's absence.
Alexander-Walker started the first 18 games of the season, but slid back into his sixth-man role on Nov. 22 against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
That pairing didn't work and lasted just one night.
"We're 3-15. That went into the decision," the first-year coach said after a Nov. 13 loss to the Grizzlies. "Until we get it right, we have to continue to make adjustments and see what works."
The burden has been brutal to bear for a team that's already suffering a bigger injury punch than it did a season ago. In 2020-21, the Pelicans finished No. 29 in the league in games missed, even with a rash of injuries toward the end of the year. This year, they're already sixth in that category, according to Spotrac's team tracking data, at 62 games lost to injury.
Williamson's rehab has been slow and calculated. The Pelicans won't rush him back onto the court, especially coming off a foot injury. He was cleared for full team workouts on Friday, but no timetable has been set for his season debut.
Though his team has made the most of his absence, it knows its season hinges on his return.
"Everyone is getting better from it; the opportunities, the minutes, the game reps," Alexander-Walker said. "Seeing the floor and going through those tough times. There's light at the end of the tunnel."
When Williamson makes his season debut, the "Point Zion" lineups are sure to return and take the burden off of a group meant to support his game.
The Pelicans embraced the use of Williamson as a primary ball handler last season. By Feb. 1, Williamson ranked 13th out of 95 players to bring the ball up at least 500 times -- just ahead of names like DeMar DeRozan and Luka Doncic.
Williamson's return will not only improve the Pelicans' playmaking, but allow the rest of the Pelicans to shift back into the roles they were meant to play all along.
As the days tick down to Williamson's return, the Pelicans are starting to find a rhythm. They are winners of three of their past four games -- all with a new starting lineup.
Valanciunas, Ingram and Graham are now flanked by Josh Hart and second-round pick Herbert Jones. In the past four games with that lineup, that group has an offensive rating of 105.6 and a defensive rating of 97.2 in 70 minutes on the floor.
That has allowed other players to settle into new roles -- like Alexander-Walker as a sixth man and Temple in a smaller role off the bench.
"I think if we get guys in the roles that the team was built around, and when you do that, again it'll take time for us to get to know each other in those different roles again playing with BI and Zion, but I think the guys that are playing, it'll get that confidence so that when we are playing in whatever role we're in we can do it at a high level," Temple said.
Even with the return of the Williamson approaching, New Orleans is five games back from the 10th spot. It's a steep mountain to climb, though it's not impossible. But the Pelicans need Williamson to do so.
"We lean on each other because we know we can't go into games and rely on one person to score 50 and win a game for us," Green said. "We have to do it collectively as a group. I'll continue to reiterate how I'm proud of what this group has done so far. Our record doesn't show it. None of us are happy about that.
"But we understand that we're building."