NEW ORLEANS — Zion Williamson was a hard man to find during the Pelicans 2021-22 regular season. Slated to be ready for the start of the season after an offseason broken foot, Williamson instead didn’t get on the court at all. There was concern over whether Zion even wanted to be here, pundits made fun of his perceived weight issues and a Mardi Gras float even mocked him.
A 1-12 start didn’t help matters but a torrid finish, the acquisition of a veteran star in C.J. McCollum, a playoff appearance and pushing the Phoenix Suns harder than expected all have led to a much different place, with experts and fans wondering how good the team can be if they add a superstar to an already cohesive unit under an emerging star head coach in Willie Green.
As he did at his season-ending meeting with the media, Williamson made it plain Saturday, at a media opportunity at his YMCA basketball camp, that he wants to stay here and he seemingly could barely contain his enthusiasm for the young team. He said he really doesn’t watch the playoffs because…
“Pels in the first round was all I needed to see,” he said. “That’s all I needed to see to be really excited to get back out there.”
He gushed over “young players” like Herb Jones, Trey Murphy and Jose Alvarado, perhaps forgetting that he’s only 21 and younger than all of the “young players” he referenced. He’ll turn 22 on July 6.
Williamson said he is working out and getting ready for the coming season.
“I do want to be here,” he said. “It’s no secret. I feel I’ve always stood on that whenever I’ve spoken.”
Williamson is eligible for an extension to his contract, but having played only 85 games and having missed 141 in three seasons has the Pelicans seemingly a little concerned about giving him an all-guaranteed maximum contract that would start at $182 million over 5 years. He is locked into the coming season for $13.5 million.
Williamson has been stellar in the few games he has played, averaging 25.7 points, 7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting a gaudy 60 percent from the field.
Willie Green has to be working overtime to figure out the best way to work Williamson into a team that has veteran 20-point-per-game players in Brandon Ingram and C.J. McCollum, a solid veteran center in Jonas Valanciunas and the young players he referenced.
As a mid to small market team that brings in much less non-shared money than big markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, team officials realize that a big gamble on Williamson has to pay off. Many are hoping he’ll follow in the footsteps of Joel Embiid, who missed his entire first two seasons and only played 31 games in the third, but who has become one of the game’s most dominant players.
If Williamson can do that, Ingram and McCollum can continue their fine play and the young players continue to bring the energy, the Pelicans could become a real force in the NBA’s Western Conference. First things first though, they need a healthy Zion.