Today was supposed to be the big day for New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson. A fractured foot has kept him off the court for this entire season as the Pelicans have sputtered to a 6-18 start. Williamson was cleared on Friday to participate in full team activities, and The Athletic’s Shams Charania said earlier today on The Pat McAfee Show that the expectation was that today would be Williamson’s first full practice.
There has been another setback. Charania reported this afternoon that Williamson is still experiencing soreness in the injured foot and they are going to temporarily dial back his rehab. The team does not expect this to be serious, but this is the same team that said Williamson would be on the court opening day and 24 games into the season, he has yet to play in a single game for the Pelicans.
At this point, the only update I want about Williamson is either he’s in the starting lineup or he’s out for the season. All of the news surrounding so far has sounded like an educated guess. This roster once again does not have enough pieces to complement Williamson. They dumped two poor acquisitions last season in center Steven Adams and guard Eric Bledsoe, but came into this season only slightly improved with the additions of center Jonas Valančiūnas and guard Devonte Graham. Forward Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans’ only other all star, has missed seven games himself due to injury. Not only are the Pelicans 12 games under .500, but they are ranked 26th in the NBA in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency.
If the Pelicans want to get Williamson on the court to get in shape, and make sure he continues to improve as a young player that is fine. If they want to keep him off of the court to try to preserve his body that has suffered a handful injuries in a very short time dating back to his year at Duke, that is also fine. What they had better make sure of, however, is that whatever decision they make, Williamson is no less than 100 percent behind it.
When the Times-Picayune’s Christian Clark put out a report in Sept. 2021 about some of the dysfunction in the Pelicans organization, one of the first issues addressed is Williamson being upset about how his injury situation was handled during his rookie season. The Pelicans originally had a timetable set for him to return after six-eight weeks from a pre-season knee injury. He ended up missing three months, and when he came back he would play in these bursts where he was supposed to go as hard as he could for like six-eight minutes and then he would sit.
It’s turning into 2019-20 all over again. Williamson originally wasn’t supposed to miss any games and now, 24 games into the 2021-22 season he has a setback when his return to the court is supposed to be imminent.
Obviously, Williamson could’ve changed his mind about his rehabilitation process. Maybe now he understands the need to be cautious with his large, 360 degree basketball dunking, 27 points per game on 61 percent shooting frame. But there’s very much a chance that the Pelicans haven’t learned their lesson from the first time that he got hurt. If that’s so, they’re risking driving away another No. 1 overall draft pick.
After this season Williamson will have a decision to make. Does he sign the five-year max contract extension that he will be in line for, and will be worth less money if he doesn’t play at all this season, or sign the qualifying offer and become a free agent in 2023 to have the option to go to a team that won’t be allowed to pay him as much as the Pelicans.
Almost every single rookie has signed the extension. Those rookies who qualify for max and supermax extensions, that will be their first $100-plus million payday. Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Dončić’s supermax extension is for $207 million over five years. Williamson has not made an All-NBA team and likely won’t this season because of all time he has missed, while Dončić’ has made two.
With the supermax money not available to Williamson, maybe he decides to bet on himself. Maybe he takes his talents to a place where his recovery is more of a collaborative effort.
It’s not likely, but even if Williamson does sign a max extension and bolts the first chance he gets after that, maybe requests a trade early like Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis? This is the predicament the Pelicans find themselves in, possibly losing two generational talents in two decades. If they want to avoid that lofty distinction they had better be taking Williamson’s input about his injury more seriously this time, instead of just sitting him out of fear.