Discover more from Marc Stein
The onus now is on Zion
The Pelicans have endured their share of stumbles since drafting Zion Williamson, but hushing years' worth of concerns about his weight has to start with the player
The New Orleans Pelicans do not know when Zion Williamson will be able to play in an NBA game again.
The Pelicans, according to the latest update from first-year coach Willie Green, are at least two to three weeks away from being able to establish a firm timeline as Williamson continues to recover from a surgically repaired right foot we still know little about.
Here are two to three hard truths about the Williamson situation as it becomes increasingly difficult to envision him playing more than 50 games in what has quickly taken the look of a third successive non-playoff season for the former Duke star.
Williamson and the Pelicans heaped copious amounts of pressure and scrutiny onto themselves by refusing to disclose the injury until the day before training camp and then making the public think he would be healthy enough to play on Opening Night.
For all the criticism that Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin received after suggesting that the team expected Williamson back by the Oct. 20 opener against Philadelphia and later insisting that his initial projections were misinterpreted, there was no ambiguity that day from the player himself.
When he spoke to reporters on Sept. 27, in the only interview he has granted on the subject, Williamson said: "I expect to be back for the first game. First official game, I would say.”
Based on Monday's update from Green, Williamson will miss seven to 12 more games before he can graduate to returning as a "full participant" in the Pelicans' practices. Things look grim already with the Pelicans off to a 1-6 start without their face of the franchise … and with echoes of that initial sunnier forecast still so fresh.
Griffin insisted in his Sept. 27 remarks that the team was "very optimistic" about Williamson's recovery and chided the media pre-emptively, saying he expected the news “to be taken as a very big negative for all of you.” Beyond questioning that approach, you inevitably wonder how the Pelicans will handle Williamson’s return this time, remembering the extreme caution they displayed when Williamson was a rookie. New Orleans held him out for the season’s first 44 games after meniscus surgery and placed him on “burst” limits when he did return. Will Zion apply pressure for a different approach this time? Will team officials acquiesce?
Give the Pelicans this much: You can tune out anyone who suggests that selecting Ja Morant ahead of Williamson with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft was a reasonable consideration at the time.
The way Williamson and Morant have started their respective third NBA seasons has made it a popular pastime to posit, with the benefit of hindsight, that the Pelicans should have drafted the dynamic Morant instead of letting the Memphis Grizzlies grab him with the second pick.
I asked executives with 10 different teams about this Monday. Only one, who I can't name after granting anonymity to all, mustered a reasonable claim to suggest that his team had the gumption to make Morant 2019's top overall choice if presented the opportunity. Yet even that executive conceded that club ownership likely would have intervened.
For all of the inevitable comparisons to the 2007 NBA Draft featuring Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, Zion had an even larger profile than Oden as a high-wattage star for mighty Duke and, like Oden, had a strong solitary season of college ball — until he sustained a knee sprain when his foot ripped through a Nike shoe in a February 2019 loss to rival North Carolina.
Durant was more accomplished coming out of college than Morant and Portland still felt compelled, as rival teams fully expected, to select Oden. NCAA Tournament success certainly helped Morant's profile as a standout from Murray State, but there was no way New Orleans (or any other team in the Pelicans’ position) was going to pass on Williamson. Not when the Pelicans, who had Jrue Holiday at the time in their backcourt, were about to lose Anthony Davis in a trade with the Lakers they were essentially forced to make. Nor when they were also facing an uncertain future in terms of sheer franchise viability in one the league's smallest markets.
The Pelicans are on their third coach in Williamson’s three seasons and coming off an offseason that puzzled many around the league after they helped Zion’s pal Lonzo Ball get to Chicago via sign-and-trade and replaced him with a shoot-first lead guard in Devonte’ Graham. Don’t get it twisted, though: Williamson was the no-brainer draft pick from a basketball and business perspective … and duly reached All-Star status in his second season by averaging 27.0 points and shooting 61.1% from the field while appearing in 61 of New Orleans’ 72 games in 2020-21.
It's too easy after the fact, with no stakes in the game, to claim more than two years later that taking Morant over Williamson was feasible.
Zion has to be a more active participant in his own recovery.
There's no skirting this aspect of the story. Williamson simply must find a way to manage his weight better, even when injured, for the sake of his own career. Immediately.
The above video, which circulated over the weekend after Williamson did some pregame work on the floor before the Pelicans' home loss to the Knicks, was (to put it charitably) less than flattering. Even if you account for the way video footage and pictures can play tricks on us, there have been concerns from Minute 1 of his NBA career about Williamson's ability to avoid injury with all the explosive jumping and hard landing he does at his listed playing weight of 284 pounds.
Rumbles of Williamson's discontent with the team's front office and medical staff have been in circulation since he was a rookie, too, but the time has long since come for Williamson to take more ownership of the situation.
And if he doesn't want to hear that from flabby second-guessers in the media like me, or New Orleans' increasingly frustrated and forlorn fans, perhaps he will take heed of what his former teammate JJ Redick said Monday in a conference call to trumpet Redick's new role as an analyst with ESPN.
As a fellow Duke alumnus who built a mentoring bond with Williamson in their time together with the Pelicans, Redick certainly got people’s attention when he responded to a question about Williamson potentially leaving New Orleans via free agency by putting the focus squarely back on the reality that Zion has not been in uniform at the start of the season for the second time in his short pro career.
"With regards to the Pelicans, of course I would be worried just in general about Zion, given his injury history," Redick said. "There is certainly a lot more at play here than just whether or not he ends up leaving the Pelicans in five years or four years or whatever it is.
"Zion has to be in better shape. That's not a secret. He’s got to get healthy. I think if Zion is out on the court with Brandon [Ingram] and the young nucleus they have, there’s a lot to be excited about if I was a Pelicans fan."
The Stein Line is a reader-supported newsletter, with both free and paid subscriptions available, and those who opt for the paid edition are taking an active role in the reporting by providing vital assistance to bolster my independent coverage of the league. Feel free to forward this post to family and friends interested in the NBA and please consider becoming a paid subscriber to have full access to all of my posts.
As a reminder: Tuesday editions, on this and every Newsletter Tuesday, go out free to anyone who signs up, just as my Tuesday pieces did in their New York Times incarnation.
I spent all of last week at home, so there can't be a full Travelogue entry on this Newsletter Tuesday.
In the name of transparency and emerging traditions, I can still share some of last week's standout experiences (and purchases):
Background on my hat tweet from the weekend: I was stunned — STUNNED — to see a hat commemorating Miami's 2006 championship at a store in Dallas, given the raw feelings that will forever be associated with the Mavericks' blown 2-0 lead in that series. That said … my social media description could have been better. It was a national retailer with a Dallas location (Urban Outfitters) rather than a Dallas retailer. The hat jumped out at me not only because of the unmissable logo but because it's a high-quality Mitchell & Ness interpretation of the sort of trucker hat I remember fondly from the 1970s and 1980s. I should also note, for the record, that the last two left in the store where I found them were on the clearance rack.
Irrational eBay purchase of the week: I can't even remember what prompted me to check if the basketball cards produced for Cal State Fullerton alumni who played in the Continental Basketball Association during the 1989-90 season were available for purchase. All I know is that, when I found them, I had to buy them all up even though I naturally already owned all these singles as part of my expansive collection of Titan Tech alumni from various sports. You can never have enough of my pal Richard Morton, current NBA referee Leon Wood and the late great Ozell "Hoppy" Jones in your collection.
It's the little things in (a traveler's) life: The only time I can ever remember being able to identify with George Clooney was naturally when he starred as the frequent flier trying to cross the 10 million American Airlines miles threshold in the film Up in the Air. Not sure there's anything else remotely Clooneyesque about my three-decade obsession with the miles, points and perceived perks many of us relentlessly chase in business travel … as evidenced by me proudly keeping this little card from my recent trip to Atlanta which confirmed that, yes, I was indeed upgraded to a slightly larger room at a Marriott property. I know, I know: I have issues. (Hoarding issues, too, according to Mrs. Line.)
Speaking of Atlanta: Below is a photographed bowl of my beloved Cream of Crab soup from Phillips Seafood in the D terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. It is the only thing I can think of that makes Hartsfield palatable — I'll take DFW over John Hollinger's home airport 11 times out of 10 — and I was also relieved to see that this Phillips location did not fall prey to the pandemic. Getting a Cream of Crab bowl at Legal Sea Foods in American Airlines' connector terminal at Philadelphia International Airport used to be my favorite dining option at any American hub in the United States until the location was shuttered months into the pandemic. Which reminds me: Can someone with Legal Sea Foods explain why a chain as synonymous with Boston for NBA scribes as the Celtics themselves offered delicious Cream of Crab soup on the menu of its Philly airport location and its now-defunct Atlanta location but not at several Boston locations?
Alex English, who ranks as the 20th all-time leading scorer in league history with 25,613 career points, is the only player in the top 20 who was not among the 76 players selected to the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team last month.
Russell Westbrook's teams usually flourish when he records a triple-double, but his first as a Laker was disastrous. Los Angeles blew a 26-point lead at lowly Oklahoma City last Wednesday despite Westbrook's 20 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists … and Westbrook registered 10 turnovers to make it the sixth time in his 185 career triple-doubles, according to Stathead, that he sullied the achievement by committing a double-digit number of giveaways.
With the loss against the Thunder franchise that drafted him No. 4 overall in 2008, Westbrook's teams dropped to 138-47, good for a winning percentage of .746, when he records a triple-double in the regular season.
Utah was the NBA's last unbeaten team after starting 4-0 and Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the NBA's first player to total at least 14 points and 14 rebounds in his first five games since Houston's Charles Barkley did so in 1998-99. Before Barkley, according to Stathead, no player had achieved that since the late Dan Roundfield in 1980-81 for Atlanta.
The curious start to the season for the reigning Western Conference champions continues: Mired at 2-3 and bracing for what the team described as a “proposed” ESPN story said to contain strong allegations against team owner Robert Sarver, Phoenix declined to extend a third-year option to Jalen Smith after selecting him No. 10 overall in the 2020 draft less than a year ago. That means Smith, despite his recent status as a top-10 pick, will become an unrestricted free agent in the summer after he completes just his second NBA season. The Suns were roundly questioned at the time for drafting Smith so high, especially with Tyrese Haliburton going to Sacramento two picks later at No. 12, and appear now to be quickly conceding that the selection was a mistake.
One follow-up to last week's story about TNT deciding not to broadcast games on their signature night (Thursdays) for the rest of the calendar year to avoid going up against the NFL: When TNT moves to two NBA nights per week from January through April, its secondary studio team starring Candace Parker, Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal alongside host Adam Lefkoe will appear on eight Tuesdays.