Last year’s New Orleans Pelicans media day was a highly-anticipated event for one reason and one reason only: Zion Williamson.
Williamson’s presence has dominated the media day headlines since his arrival in 2019, but this time it was different. It had been months since Williamson sat in front of reporters and spoke on his recovery from a broken foot that cost him the entire 2021-22 season. Sporting his patented bright-eyed smile and a new, slimmer physique, he spoke about his excitement heading into a crucial season for the Pelicans’ organization.
“I feel like I’m at my best right now,” Williamson said at last year’s media day. “I’m moving faster. I’m jumping higher. I feel great.”
One year later, Williamson’s messaging, physical build and unbridled enthusiasm will likely be the same as the Pelicans host media day on Monday ahead of the 2023-24 season.
This time around, Zion will be questioned about a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the final 45 games of last season, but the themes will mostly be the same as they’ve been almost every year since he became a pro:
How tough was sitting out while your team fought to make the playoffs? What have you done to make sure your body is more prepared this time around? How good can this team be if everyone stays healthy for once?
Whatever Williamson says will draw strong reactions. He’s become one of the more polarizing figures in the league. But he could easily repeat one of his quotes from a year ago because it still applies today.
“I can sit up here and tell y’all whatever I want to tell y’all. It’s not going to matter,” Williamson said a year ago. “You’re only going to judge me based on what I do out there (on the court). I’m just gonna have to show y’all.”
More than ever, it’s all about showing instead of telling in New Orleans.
Zion’s availability from night to night will be where most of the focus is centered, but the pressure on him to produce comes from much more than just his extended absences the past few seasons.
While the Pelicans have been mostly quiet this offseason, several of their moves have been tied to making sure the situations behind the scenes with Williamson are more palatable. (Williamson’s name came up in trade rumors around the draft, but the Pelicans did not include Williamson in any formal offers, league sources tell The Athletic).
The Pelicans announced last week that Aaron Nelson, the former head of the medical staff in New Orleans and a much-hyped acquisition by the team in 2019 following his long tenure with the Phoenix Suns, has been moved to an advisory role within the performance team. Along with that move, the team also announced the hiring of Amy Atmore as the new Director of Rehabilitation.
While the team may not admit it, these moves are, in large part, tied to the tension that’s existed between Nelson and Williamson’s camp since 2019. It was essential for the team to add a new face to the medical staff that Williamson could trust.
On the other hand, New Orleans also cut ties with former assistant Teresa Weatherspoon this past summer, surprising many considering the close relationship Weatherspoon had developed with Williamson. Prior to her departure, Weatherspoon was the superstar’s closest confidant within the organization. Her removal will almost certainly change how Williamson communicates with certain team members, especially during turmoil.
Either way, Williamson’s interactions with the Pelicans front office behind the scenes will be a source of intrigue for the foreseeable future. The struggles the two sides have gone through to get on the same page have only exacerbated some of the confusion that’s led to several of Zion’s injuries sidelining him longer than expected.
While they work to put those differences aside, Williamson has also shown some willingness to change his own routines behind the scenes. In past offseasons, Zion has gone away to train on his own. But this summer, he’s spent much more time in New Orleans working out in the practice facility and spending time with his teammates and members of the staff. Pelicans EVP of basketball operations David Griffin highlighted some of the changes in Zion’s routine while speaking to the Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club last week.
“I can tell you Zion Williamson has been in our gym more than he has in his entire career in the offseason,” Griffin said. “He has been in New Orleans virtually all offseason, which is different.”
Williamson also spent extensive time around outside medical experts during his time in New Orleans this summer, sources close to Williamson told The Athletic. They worked to evaluate his body and what it would take for him to remain durable during a grueling 82-game season.
While much of his time last summer was directed toward dropping weight, Williamson’s focus this summer was based more on endurance and making sure his body was prepared to perform at peak levels for the entirety of the season. Being dominant for one month isn’t good enough anymore.
“I’m at that point now because of certain things, I’m putting back the wisdom around me. I don’t want to say older because they get defensive, but I’m putting people around me with wisdom,” Williamson said during a surprise appearance on Gilbert Arenas’ podcast, “Gil’s Arena, over the summer. “(They) put me on game to certain things. And just go from there.”
No matter what, the patience and optimism Williamson was once afforded has worn thin after years of high expectations and underwhelming results. During his time with the Pelicans, Zion has missed 194 regular season games, and he’s suited up just 29 times over the last two seasons.
Along with some of the backlash he received for missing so much time over the past two seasons, Williamson was in the public eye more than ever this past summer after details of his private life turned into public Internet fodder, including the announcement of his soon-to-be first child.
The drama with Williamson’s injuries and other issues he’s dealing with behind closed doors has left many fans feeling cold about a figure viewed as the savior of basketball in New Orleans just a few years ago.
As Williamson enters his fifth season, the stakes are higher than ever for the Pelicans and the most important figure in the organization. Both sides are entering a fork-in-the-road season as the Pelicans face some tough decisions about the future in New Orleans. Will Zion finally live up to his potential and become a franchise-altering force? Or will this be another season filled with missed opportunities and regret?
The Pelicans believe they’ve done what it takes to build a roster with all the necessary pieces to be a serious threat in the West. Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum are among the most potent offensive trios in the league, and they’re supporting cast is filled with young role players like Herb Jones, Trey Murphy and Jose Alvarado, who are experienced enough to contribute once the lights get bright.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, two of those contributors (Alvarado and Murphy) won’t be healthy for the start of training camp after dealing with offseason injuries. There’s a real likelihood that Murphy, perhaps the most improved player on the Pels roster last season, won’t be available for at least the season’s first month after tearing his meniscus.
Either way, the Pels will have their top three players — Williamson, Ingram and McCollum — on the court once training camp begins. This team has no excuse as long as those guys are out there.
While all three of them are under contract for at least the next two seasons, some questions are already surfacing about how long the Pelicans will be able to keep this trio together. The three of them are set to make a combined $103.6 million this season, and as the young pieces around them look to get their paydays in the coming seasons, it will become even more expensive it’ll be to keep this core together.
Remember, the Pelicans are one of two teams — along with Charlotte — that have never paid the luxury tax in franchise history. That doesn’t mean Pelicans owner Gayle Benson will unequivocally refuse to pay what’s required to maintain a winning roster. But to convince ownership to do something it’s never done before, there must be proof that this group can win on the highest level.
As of now, Williamson, Ingram and McCollum have only played 172 minutes together. While they’ve had some dominant stretches (plus-60 in 10 games), it’d be tough for anyone to give a definitive answer on how good this group can be when fully healthy.
Ingram and McCollum have proven to be among the league’s most talented players at their respective positions, but the ultimate success of this trio will be determined by what Zion does and how much he can stay on the floor.
Zion Williamson’s return, Victor Wembanyama’s arrival: Previewing the Southwest Division
While one month of greatness won’t be enough for Williamson this year, the one month he provided last year is enough to remind everyone why he’s worth all this trouble despite being such an injury risk throughout his career.
After dealing with some ups and downs at the start of the 2022-23 season, Williamson was playing the best basketball of his career just before suffering the hamstring injury that ultimately cost him the rest of his season.
In his final 17 games of the 2022-23 season, Williamson averaged 28.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists while shooting an absurd 63.8 percent from the field. In those 17 games, the Pelicans went 10-7, including victories over Denver, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Phoenix (twice).
This run was highlighted by perhaps the greatest single-game performance of Williamson’s career, when he scored a career-high 43 points to pull off a 119-118 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 28. In the fourth quarter of that win, Williamson scored his team’s final 14 points to erase a five-point deficit and send the Smoothie King Center crowd into a frenzy.
Career-high 43 points for Zion, including the last 14 for the #Pelicans to lead the squad to the W 👏
Playing ̶f̶o̶o̶t̶b̶a̶l̶l̶ basketball at an MVP level 💪 pic.twitter.com/jy4aKWPlCP
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) December 29, 2022
This was more than just an “I’m back” moment from Williamson. He announced to the league he was on the brink of superstardom.
“I’ve never seen anything like him,” teammate CJ McCollum said that night. “The ability to make the right plays and be able to handle and move the way he does. The fluidity in his movements, but also the body control on the jumps. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that. I don’t think we will.”
But Williamson’s run of dominance would come to an end five days later when he suffered a hamstring injury in a loss at Philadelphia on Jan. 2. At the time, the Pelicans had the third-best record in the Western Conference and were considered a serious contender to reach the Conference Finals.
But once Williamson was out of the picture — along with Ingram for two months due to a toe injury — those dreams came crashing down as the Pelicans ended the year with a loss at home to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the Play-In Tournament.
Williamson was forced to watch from the side in street clothes that night as his team fell short. If the Pelicans are ever going to live up to their potential, the image we’ve seen so often over the past four years has to become a thing of the past.
The Pelicans and Williamson have certainly worked this summer to address issues that have lingered over the past few years. But when the entire team gets in front of the camera on Monday, we’ll learn the same lesson we learned this time last year when it seemed like happy days were on the horizon:
Without the results on the floor, nothing else matters.
“I can’t tell you whether or not they will be healthy. I have no ability to read that future,” Griffin said at the Quarterback Club last week. “But I can tell you in every area we do control, we are doing everything we can to bring that to fruition. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. But if you can be both, you can be special.”
(Illustration by John Bradford / The Athletic. Photos: Garrett Ellwood, Layne Murdoch Jr. / Getty Images)