Conflicting reports on Monday have the No. 1 pick in last June’s draft, Zion Williamson, potentially making his debut for the New Orleans Pelicans Thursday.
To say this season hasn’t gone according to plan for the New Orleans Pelicans would be severely understating the situation. With a new face running the front office in David Griffin, the Pelicans aggressively pursued a rebuild last summer, trading away Anthony Davis for a package of young players and picks. They also won the lottery and drafted phenom Zion Williamson.
Williamson put on a great show in his one appearance at the Las Vegas Summer League with 11 points in just nine minutes before he was shut down for the remainder of the session with a bruised knee.
In the preseason, Williamson looked like the real deal, averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in 27.2 minutes per game, while shooting 71.4 percent overall and going 1-for-4 from 3-point range. He also showed a knack for drawing contact, averaging eight free throw attempts per game in those four games.
He did it was some flair, as well, evidenced in his preseason highlight reel.
But then, just like that, it was over. The day before the season was set to begin, Williamson underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee and was projected to miss six to eight weeks. In the season’s 13th week, Williamson has yet to make an appearance in a game.
On Monday, Mitch Lawrence of SiriusXM NBA Radio reported the plan is for Williamson to play Thursday when the Utah Jazz visit New Orleans.
Will Guillory, who covers the Pelicans for The Athletic, quickly poured some cold water on the report, saying nothing had been decided by New Orleans management or medical personnel.
Williamson has been putting on some shows for early arriving fans during pre-game warmups over the last few weeks, complete with some big dunks — all of which fueled speculation he was nearing a return.
Many critics cited Williamson’s weight — he’s listed at 284 pounds — as a contributing factor behind his injury, a notion Griffin shot down with fury.
“The notion that this happened because Zion is in poor condition is asinine. He wasn’t in poor condition when he went 12-of-13 … against Utah. That’s not what it is. He’s just a very unique body type and certainly from a physics perspective.”
Other speculation has centered around Williamson’s violent landings after his jumps, with Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer reporting about the Pelicans working with the rookie to change his running gait and jumping technique.
And still others, including ESPN’s Paul Pierce, said Williamson should not bother playing at all this season and instead focus on a 2020-21 debut.
Not playing doesn’t sound like it was ever something Williamson considered, based on what he said on Jan. 2, following his first full practice with the team since his injury, per Zagoria.
“If it was up to me, I would have been out there two weeks ago.”
The Pelicans, to their credit, have shown some signs of life after a dreadful start that bottomed out in mid-December with a franchise-record 13-game losing streak. That run left New Orleans at 6-22 and basically buried for the season.
But since then, the Pelicans are 9-4. While they are still 14th in the 15-team Western Conference, New Orleans is just 3½ games in back of the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies in what is shaping up to be a very crowded race for the West’s final playoff berth.
Zion’s injury was a blow to the entire league from a marketing standpoint. The NBA’s broadcast partners scheduled the Pelicans to play 20 times on ESPN/ABC and TNT — up from just 11 last season — including premium assignments such as Opening Night, Christmas Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
That television schedule was solely created to take advantage of Zion-mania, so that’s been a bust for the Pelicans and the NBA.
Coach Alvin Gentry cautioned that Williamson will be on a minutes restriction upon his return, potentially a very limited one.
“We’re trying to gauge exactly when it would be a good situation to put him out there. But even when we do, it’s going to be very limited minutes to start as everybody would assume that it would.”
Whether it is actually going to be Thursday or some other date in the very near future, Zion Williamson is getting close to actually playing basketball in games for the New Orleans Pelicans. That, by itself, is a very promising development.