In the Biz: Iron Lion Zion

Anticipation is mounting for Zion Williamson’s return
ILLUSTRATION BY TONY HEALEY

A false start is more often associated with the gridiron of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome than the court of the Smoothie King Center, but the term is applicable for the beginning of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2019-20 season.

Basketball hopes have been high in the Crescent City since the spring, when the Pels were the beneficiary of a fortuitous bounce of an NBA Draft Lottery ping-pong ball that gave them the top draft choice and the opportunity to land Zion Williamson, a generational talent who has been called the most exciting player to enter the league since four-time MVP LeBron James.

The excitement for Williamson came on the heels of Anthony Davis, the face of the franchise for the previous seven seasons, announcing last January that he no longer wanted to play in New Orleans and requested a midseason trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. The fallout from the demand wrecked both teams’ seasons and, with former NBA cities like Seattle currently without a franchise, caused many to question whether or not New Orleans was a viable basketball city.

Questions about the team’s future in NOLA vanished immediately when the Pelicans won the top choice in draft lottery and the right to select the superstar prospect. “Zion fever” hit the city. His name and likeness have become ubiquitous in New Orleans and across the country. The Pelicans became a hot commodity and even sparked talk about the team making the playoffs.

That excitement was put on pause Oct. 21, when the team announced the 6-foot-6, 285-pound, 19-year-old would miss the first two months of the season as he recovered from surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee.

Without the No. 1 overall pick, the team has struggled, winning roughly a third of the games they’ve played. But with Williamson, who averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals, and 1.8 blocked shots at Duke University last season and averaged 23.2 points in four preseason games, set to return to action, many feel the Pelicans’ season is just beginning.

Last month, Williamson said his knee was slowly getting better; however, Pelicans’ brass have not given a timeline for his return. They would rather wait for their star to make a full recovery rather than pushing him into action too early and risking another, possibly more serious, injury.

While the anticipation for the start of Williamson’s NBA career is nearly palpable, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said being deliberate with his return will protect the player’s long-term health. While it initially looked like Williamson would miss 20 games, Gentry said it could be as many as 30.

“I don’t think it’s anything that can be rushed,” Gentry said. “It’s not anything that’s going to be rushed. It’s a matter of taking the time to make sure he’s fine.”

Patience has been a luxury for the Pelicans. The team is taking its time getting Williamson on the court and in the spotlight. New Orleans has one of the youngest teams in the NBA, and the Western Conference is stacked with talented teams. From the beginning of the season, the Pelicans were seen as a marginal playoff team. The charge for this squad has been to get comfortable playing together and build for the future. Jrue Holiday is tasked with assuming leadership of the team as the youngsters adjust to the rigors of playing in the NBA. Brandon Ingram is averaging more than 25 points and seven rebounds per game. J.J. Redick is among the best in the league hitting three-pointers. But only four players on the roster haven’t been injured this year.

“My mindset is just come back stronger, come back better so I can help my team,” Williamson said. “It’s 82 games (in the season), so I don’t really see a need to rush back.”

“I do feel like it’s getting stronger,” he added. “Day by day, it’s getting better…It’s getting stronger and I can feel the difference each day.”

With Williamson’s return, the postseason may still be obtainable. Even if he misses 30 games there are 52 left in the season, but New Orleans will have to have several things go right just to make the playoffs. There is no doubt, though, that the Pelicans will be a much more formidable team with No. 1 on the court.

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Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football. Price also authors the Friday Sports Column at BizNewOrleans.com.

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