The New Orleans Pelicans can’t catch a break. The latest setback to their cornerstone player Zion Williamson probably ends any hope the team had of even making the play-in tournament. Given the cascade of complications the squad has endured, once again, the future must remain a priority.
The slow progress of Williamson’s rehabilitation of his right foot is disconcerting. He may be 6’6 on a good day, but his immoderate circumference should place him in big-man territory when it comes to injuries to his extremities.
He’s “listed” at 284 lbs, but he’s never played at that weight. It’s alarming because of the unnecessary stress it is likely placing on his bones, ligaments and joints, but at the same time, the feat is impressive. Few things in sports can captivate an audience quite like a 300+ pound man gracefully floating through the air before unleashing a raging assault on the rim. Yet, lower-body injuries to big men historically have proven to be career-altering.
Bill Walton was a hoops savant, but injuries to his feet prevented the Deadhead from reaching his zenith. Bill Cartwright was another All-Star center with issues in the same area. So was Sam Bowie, picked ahead of Michael Jordan. Each of those guys in their playing days weighed significantly less than what Williamson does now, yet they were 7-footers or just about.
At media day on Sept. 27, vice president of basketball ops David Griffin said he expected Williamson to be cleared for action by opening night. The Pelicans’ season is now 34% complete, and there is no sign of an imminent return now that the team is scaling back his workload. The Pelicans are last in the west, and their record sits at 8-21, four games outside of the play-in-tournament.
The odds of the Pelicans reaching the 10th seed are slim, but they should perhaps look to get there without the help of Williamson this season. To protect their investment in taking #1, #1, maybe it would be in NOLA’s best interest to not have their star player suit up until he is at least at his weight from draft night.
This is not the first lower body injury Williamson has had as a pro. He bruised his left knee in his Summer League debut in 2019. Then a few months later, Williamson tore his meniscus in a preseason game that required surgery and kept him out until January. He also hurt his hamstring in the bubble, but the team never revealed that.
The ultraconservative approach worked in the near recent pass for Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers did not play Embiid in his first two years in the NBA as he rehabbed his right foot. In his rookie campaign (2017), Philly’s center suited up 31 times, and he was still offered a 5-year $145 million rookie extension.
Through two seasons, Williamson has played in 85 games and missed 88. If he doesn’t play a minute of this season, he would still have played more than double what Embiid did his first three years. Williamson should feel no pressure to return to get paid when first eligible at the end of this season. Being the top pick in 2019 and a game-changer on the court practically guarantees him his money.