Playing with Zion Williamson is not like playing with anyone else. He is a flying brick, a 6-foot-6 playmaker who rarely shoots jumpers but plows through and soars over defenders. He throws down thunderous dunks, has a feathery touch and does not fit anywhere on the conventional positional spectrum.

"I almost relate him to KAT, a reverse KAT," Larry Nance Jr., Williamson's teammate with the New Orleans Pelicans, said last month, referencing Minnesota Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns. "Karl's a '5' but really plays as a 4, whereas Z is a '4' but really plays as a ballhandling 5."

In recent years, NBA coaches have instructed players to set ball screens higher and higher, sometimes even close to halfcourt, in an effort to stretch the defense out and give ballhandlers more space. When Williamson has the ball, however, it is not unusual to see Nance or Jonas Valanciunas set screens around the free throw line or in the paint. This isn't because the Pelicans have been watching old instructional videos; it is because their opponents often back off of Williamson and go under against his pick-and-rolls.

"I mean, the play is to screen for him at the 3-point line," Nance said. "But I tell you what, if you're going to get that deep under screens, you're always taught, 'Get a hit, hit the defender wherever he's at.' So if he's high, screen him high. If he's low, you gotta go as low as you can to get him."

Nance has "set screens for Z at the block," he said, and seen Williamson immediately go up for a hook shot or explode to the basket.

"If that's how you want to guard it, fantastic," Nance said. "I would love him to operate in that space."

On Tuesday, in the fourth quarter of a play-in game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Nance screened LeBron James, Williamson's man, at the elbow, and Williamson burst past Anthony Davis for a layup. This sparked a 13-2 run that tied the game. After a Davis putback and a New Orleans timeout, Nance set a ball screen for Williamson at the opposite elbow, forcing a switch. Williamson went right at Davis, got into the paint and tied it up again, giving him 40 points (on 17-for-27 shooting) in the first postseason game of his career.

It was immediately clear that, as far as signature performances go, this topped Williamson's spectacular two-way showing against the Phoenix Suns a week prior. Two days removed from this same Lakers limiting him to 12 points on 4-for-13 shooting in an ugly regular-season finale, Williamson was carrying the Pelicans when they needed it the most. Neither CJ McCollum, who had ended the season on a heater, nor Brandon Ingram, who had just returned from a knee injury, had caught a rhythm offensively against Los Angeles. The entire run happened with Jose Alvarado, Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III and Nance on the floor next to Williamson, the unquestioned star of the show.

After Williamson's shot went in, though, he grimaced and motioned toward New Orleans' bench. Los Angeles called a timeout, and Williamson walked straight to the locker room. The Pelicans kept fighting for the final three minutes, but lost 110-106, setting up an elimination game against the Sacramento Kings on Friday with a playoff spot on the line. Williamson won't play in that game, and if they win, he'll miss the start of the playoffs, too; the team announced Wednesday that he strained his left hamstring and will be reevaluated in about two weeks.

The timing is brutal. New Orleans might not have been playing on Tuesday if not for injuries -- the team was a half-game out of fourth place before Ingram hyperextended his knee less than a month ago, a blow that was compounded by Alvarado missing five games with a right oblique strain and Williamson missing one game (and part of another) with a finger injury. Instead of preparing for Williamson's playoff series, though, the Pelicans now face the possibility of missing the playoffs altogether. They have more than enough talent to be competitive without their franchise player, but opposing teams won't have to worry about those low screens leading to lefty layups. Without Williamson bulldozing people, they are conventional.

If this is an even bigger buzzkill than any of Williamson's previous injuries, it is because of what it interrupted. Williamson was not only making the absolute most of the stage he had that night, he had been showing for months that he -- and, by extension, New Orleans -- had gotten serious. He was in the best shape of his career, playing the best defense of his career and leading a deep and exciting team that was doing everything it could to make its pieces fit. For a player who had put in the work to be able to play heavy minutes of high-intensity basketball, getting hurt in his 37th minute was a cruel twist of fate.

If you are the particularly pessimistic sort, you can frame the injury as a total catastrophe: The Pelicans didn't profile as a championship contender with Williamson, and, if they don't get the chance to go through a playoff series with him, it'll make it more difficult for them to become one. The front office will be robbed of the opportunity to see what issues need to be addressed to be more playoff-ready next season, and Williamson will continue to be seen as inherently injury-prone. Whether New Orleans makes minor tweaks (i.e. some talent consolidation around the edges) or major changes (i.e. moving Ingram or McCollum) to the roster this summer, it will be doing so from a position of relative weakness, rather than strength.

There is, however, a glass-half-full view of the situation: Williamson has just shown the world what he can do when he's fully committed, and it's surely better to have given everybody this glimpse of greatness and suffered a setback than to never have ascended to such heights in the first place. This injury does not erase the immense progress that Williamson has made, nor does it mean that executive vice president David Griffin can't come away from the season with tons of ideas about how to build around him. As much of a bummer as it is, the team is still fairly young, a work in progress and unlikely to win a championship in the short term anyway. Whether Williamson is back in a couple weeks or at the beginning of training camp, he and the Pelicans should only be hungrier for it.