If being pickpocketed in the French Quarter and losing my debit card before the New Orleans Pelicans’ 113–103 loss to the Washington Wizards taught me anything, it taught me that one should be careful with valuable things.

The aforementioned game would be HBCU Night for the Pelicans, where HBCU culture, pride and history would be celebrated and put on display in the Crescent City. As my co-workers and I  entered the arena, we were given hats. The hats had a pattern that displayed Black excellence and African-American heritage.

However, the night of peace and celebration would end quickly for Pelicans’ star center Jonas Valančiūnas. In the midway point of the second quarter, in an attempt to cradle the ball in his arms for a layup, he was ejected after an unintentional elbow to Wizards’ center Taj Gibson’s head. The officials reviewed the incident and deemed it a “hostile act,” which was the official reason for Valančiūnas’ exit.

Upon looking back at the incident postgame, it’s incredulous that the referees would call such a foul a “hostile act.” There seemed to be nothing that would indicate that Valančiūnas intentionally hit Gibson, and many Pelicans fans in the Smoothie King Center agreed that there was no hostile act. However, the replay center somehow found there to be one, and he was escorted to the locker room to a cascade of boos in support of Valančiūnas’ innocence.

Be that as it may, the Pelicans were forced to play without their best interior defender and his presence was sorely missed. The Wizards seemed unstoppable in the paint, with center Daniel Gafford scoring 21 points with 10 rebounds and five blocks. By comparison, Valančiūnas was scoreless in nine minutes of play with only three rebounds to his name.

But the Lithuanian center wasn’t the only star missing time. Zion Williamson, who was the Pelicans’ number one overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, missed yet another game. The Pelicans need him back as soon as possible, as seen by the fact that Washington outrebounded New Orleans 51–42. 13 of the 51 rebounds that the Wizards had were offensive, and Valančiūnas in the paint would have tipped the scales not only in the rebound department, but in the final score as well, giving the Pelicans their first win in the last eight games. 

The Pelicans attempted to come back without their starting center, but it would be in vain. There was an opportunity for a huge momentum shift early in the fourth quarter when C.J. McCollum attempted to finish an alley-oop, but it clanged off the rim and fell into the hands of a Washington Wizard.

Simply put, without their big men, the New Orleans Pelicans will not win. To compete with players like the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, you need a competent big man. Until Zion returns, the Pelicans will keep crashing and burning. 

It’s a shame, because the team has the talent, but in a league with heavy emphasis on long-range shooting, centers still have carved out a niche that will always exist in the NBA. Zion Williamson is the missing piece that the Pelicans need.