Southwest Notes: Zion, Daniels, Pelicans, Rockets, Gabriel

The Pelicans have been on a roll lately, going 6-1 since the start of March and 15-5 since January 31. Former No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson has played his best basketball of the season of late, coinciding with the team’s surge up the standings — New Orleans is currently 41-26, the No. 5 seed in the West, one game back of the slumping Clippers.

On his Hoop Collective podcast, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said he’s heard from people around the team that Williamson has lost a considerable amount of weight since December, when the Pelicans were embarrassed by the Lakers in the semifinal of the in-season tournament.

I’ve got people in New Orleans telling me that since December when the in-season tournament happened, that Zion Williamson has lost 25 or more pounds, and his performance has been excellent,” Windhorst said (hat tip to Doric Sam of Bleacher Report). “He’s playing fewer minutes and I think that helps as well, but I’ve got people telling me he’s lost 25 pounds. And I don’t mean like in the past where they say, ‘Oh, he’s added muscle’ and it’s like, ‘Has he?’

Windhorst’s ESPN colleague Andrew Lopez has heard the same from his own sources, noting that Williamson “looks completely different,” both physically and as a player.

While Williamson has mostly been known for his offensive ability to this point in his career, he played impressive defense on Kawhi Leonard late in Friday’s victory over the Clippers, writes Christian Clark of Leonard finished with just two points on 1-of-3 shooting in seven minutes in the final period.

At the end of the game, I was like, ‘I got Kawhi,’Trey Murphy said. “He was like, ‘Nah, I got it.’ I was like, ‘You got it then. I’m not going to fight you then.’ That’s what you want out of your stars. You want them to take on the challenge.”

Here’s more from the Southwest:

  • Pelicans guard Dyson Daniels, who is recovering from a torn meniscus in his left knee, was a full participant in Monday’s practice, head coach Willie Green told reporters, including Will Guillory of The Athletic (Twitter link). Daniels was doing 3-on-3 work post-practice as well, Guillory relays (via Twitter), which is another positive sign for the second-year guard, though Green said the 21-year-old still has to check a few more boxes before being cleared to return. Herbert Jones (back) and Larry Nance Jr. (non-COVID illness) were also full practice participants after missing Saturday’s game, Guillory adds.
  • The Rockets have gone 7-1 over their last eight games and now trail the Warriors and Lakers by 3.5 games for the final spot in the play-in tournament. It’s a stark contrast from the past few seasons, when the team was stuck at the bottom of the standings. As Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle (subscriber link) writes, the Rockets know playing in high-pressure games is the next step in their development. “I’ve been on teams myself where you knew you were done by December, January,” head coach Ime Udoka said. “That’s not the best feeling. To have something to play for, but also change the mindset and mentality around here, was one of the main objectives this year. I think we did that from the start. To have a chance to play for something still at this point in the season but also finish on a strong note, guys are continuing to grow. It’s year one with me, and I think we’ve seen the progress. Things are starting to round out a little bit here and there. We’d like to have that momentum going into next year regardless of where we land.”
  • Wenyen Gabriel‘s 10-day contract with the Grizzlies expired overnight, notes Keith Smith of Spotrac (via Twitter). The Sudanese forward/center is now an NBA free agent, though Puerto Rico’s Vaqueros de Bayamon announced last week that Gabriel had signed a contract with the team for the coming season. The 26-year-old averaged 3.4 points and 5.0 rebounds in five games with Memphis.
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