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Zion Williamson's mysterious future may cloud Pelicans' path

Posted on March 09, 2022

Three years after being drafted, he holds the city in his hands and has the league on alert. He’s soaring to the rim and up the Kia MVP charts simultaneously, pulling his team in the process. And his highlights are so show-stopping and in-demand that the TV networks are hastily re-shuffling their future schedules to accommodate him and all his fabulousness.

This was supposed to be Zion Williamson, the plucky No. 1 overall pick with the Bunyan body and designated savior of basketball in New Orleans. As it turns out, Zion is grounded — still — while the player taken with the next pick in that draft, Ja Morant, is convincingly building a mountain of basketball credibility.

Tuesday’s game between the Grizzlies and Pelicans (7:30 ET, TNT) was originally supposed to be a national TV showcase of next-Gen takeover players. Instead, the focus after the jump will be singular in nature — all about Ja — while understandably raising an uncomfortable question in the process:

What’s up with Zion?

As he mends from a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot that required two procedures since last summer, Williamson very likely and reluctantly will join Greg Oden and Blake Griffin as former No. 1 overall picks in the last 15 years who missed an entire season. It all depends on how much importance he and the Pelicans place on a possible 2021-22 debut with only 18 regular season games remaining. While the Pelicans, after early struggles, flipped their fortunes — they’re 24-21 since starting the season 3-16 — the overall health of Williamson and his future is obviously more important than getting a cameo from him.

His short NBA career has been fogged in a fair degree of secrecy and uncertainty. That’s what makes his case so perplexing. His injuries, weight and desire to remain in New Orleans long-term always seem to be issues without much clarity. It doesn’t help that Williamson hasn’t spoken publicly in almost a year, and the front office likewise stays mum for the most part, and his “camp” doesn’t offer much more clues. Everyone who has something invested in him, it seems, walks carefully around the subject of Zion.

Even his foot rehab raised eyebrows on the outside; Zion just spent two months away from the team, in Portland, while allowing his bone to heal properly. This drew an interesting reaction from his former teammate-turned-broadcaster, JJ Redick, who recently said: “This just shows a complete lack off investment in your team, your organization, in the city.”

Williamson still hasn’t done any court work, there’s no timetable for that as he remains out indefinitely. This leads to the main topic: His unavailability. Williamson has played only 85 games while missing 123 and counting. And what’s interesting is the 85 played were, for the most part, packed with promise and impact.

He showed the bully-ball strength combined with quick footwork and delicate touch that made him a tough assignment, especially near the rim. Just last season, Williamson became the fourth-youngest All-Star at 21, erasing the chance of him being a bust — assuming good health — and raising the ceiling on his star potential when he averaged 27 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 61.1%.

Those skills, coupled with his injury history, made the Pelicans hyper-protective regarding Williamson, and perhaps with good reason. He’s a massive investment for a small-market franchise and a player who caused team employees to celebrate madly when New Orleans won the Draft lottery rights for him.

That euphoric day seems like so long ago, if only because Zion has spent more time off the floor than on it.

There are only a few examples that compare to Zion’s, and yet Oden seems a bit of a stretch, because he had chronic foot issues that doomed him and frustrated doctors. Griffin suffered a fractured kneecap that erased his official rookie season, but recovered nicely to become one of the game’s best power forwards during his peak. Then there’s Joel Embiid, a former No. 3 pick who missed his first two seasons with foot injuries and now is a beastly MVP favorite. So in that sense, the comps favor Zion.

Williamson’s physical misfortunes are perhaps linked to his body structure and weight. At 6-foot-6 and a listed 284 pounds, he’s built like a nose tackle. And those football players don’t ask their bodies to run 94 feet and explode at the rim.

The Pelicans conducted all sorts of scientific studies in the past about torque and lift to weigh the pros and cons of this freak of nature. Whether that data helped identify potential problems, only the Pelicans know. And if so, why is Williamson coming off a complicated major injury which was slow to heal, and what does this do for his future?

If Williamson loses a chunk of weight — and there are indications he trimmed the body fat during this layoff — how effective will Skinny Zion be in the paint?

It’s all confusing and couldn’t happen at a more delicate time. Williamson becomes extension-eligible this summer and the Pelicans must make a hefty financial decision on a player who lacks a lengthy track record. The betting money is the Pelicans deliver the rookie maximum rather than risk alienating Zion.

And this is assuming Zion will want that contract. He’d become the first No. 1 overall pick to decline a rookie extension, which means it won’t happen. There’s too much money at stake for a player who hasn’t yet cashed in, and that money also buys insurance and peace of mind in case of future injuries.

Meanwhile, the Pelicans refuse to collapse on the court without him (although losing 16 of their first 19 games seemed to indicate the season would be a wash initially).

Brandon Ingram continues to be a borderline star and the best part of the Anthony Davis trade, with 29 or more points in four of his last five games. Even better, the Pelicans won four of those games, losing only to the Nuggets in overtime Sunday when Nikola Jokic delivered a masterpiece.

CJ McCollum gives New Orleans a steady scorer and in his 10 games with the team, he’s averaging 26.1 ppg while shooting 51.8%. Largely because of him and Ingram, the Pelicans are suddenly in the Play-In Tournament mix, maybe for good.

Best of all, the Pelicans haven’t parted with many assets — other than a protected 2022 first-rounder to Portland in the McCollum deal — since the Davis trade. They own four No. 1s from the Lakers and Bucks (the Jrue Holiday trade) along with possible swaps, and the 2022 Lakers pick, suddenly, might convey this summer.

With the right decisions, the Pelicans can add the proper pieces around the Williamson-McCollum-Ingram core, especially given their favorable salary cap ledger. Yet it all depends on Williamson, his weight, his health, his desires and also a bit of luck.

The Grizzlies, at the time, would’ve preferred the chance to draft Zion three years ago — who wouldn’t? Yet it all worked out well for them and, obviously, they wouldn’t trade places now. Morant has been that good, that much of a box office player.

And Zion has been that much of a mystery.