There is optimism in the “Big Easy” as we head toward the beginning of the NBA season. The New Orleans Pelicans made the playoffs last season, advancing from the play-in tournament after a horrendous start to the season.
Superstar Zion Williamson, who has been heavily criticized, is back after a lost season due to injury and he’s ready to show the world. Has he put the NBA on notice?
“I’m one of those people that I like to show you more than I tell you,” Williamson says. “Because I feel like when I tell, it doesn’t even feel humble at all. So, [claps for emphasis] I have to show the world.”
Williamson missed all of last season with a fractured right foot. He had surgery and a setback from that surgery. Heavy and constant criticism came at the young forward, leading many to question his commitment to the Pelicans.
The 2019 No. 1 draft pick had reached his emotional nadir and with the team’s blessing chose to continue his rehab in Portland.
“I was in dark places at times,” Williamson says, “because I couldn’t play basketball. I could only do limited rehab things. And then just seeing how the world reacted? It took a lot. It did a lot on my spirit.
“I felt helpless. I couldn’t do nothing about it. While [pundits] are telling me I don’t care about my teammates, or I’m a bad teammate, or I don’t want to be somewhere, the whole time I’m worried about my foot. I’m worried about, Man, I hope my foot heals right, because if it doesn’t, who knows, I may not get to play basketball again.”
Williamson has changed a lot about his approach following the Pelicans’ impressive showing in the first round of the NBA playoffs. He has committed to getting his body in better shape, and all reports out of New Orleans is that he’s in the best shape of his young career.
He’s hired a personal chef and no longer drinks sodas and other sugary drinks that don’t allow for optimal performance.
Williamson spent time connecting with his new teammate, veteran CJ McCollum, and learned how to approach being a professional.
“Just being a professional,” McCollum says. “I think he appreciated my candor. [Zion] is very active, very engaged, very involved, very cognizant of what’s going on. But he also understands that the onus is on him now. To do things the right way, to continue to eat the right way, to do the work the right way. … I think he’s at that stage now where he’s taking responsibility for his actions.”
Fans often think of progression and maturity in athletes as linear. You get drafted and, poof, you magically become a professional ready to handle the rigors and expectations of everything being a pro entails.
The reality is it’s not linear.
Only the rarest of athletes are ready to handle the burdens, pressures and expectations perfectly while also performing at the highest levels. It’s damn near impossible.
Williamson was 19 years old when he was drafted and immediately called the future face of the league and the savior of the Pelicans franchise. Like all young people that become multi-millionaires overnight, there were some missteps along the way, and it looks like he’s owning that now.
If he is approaching his craft and profession with a more mature mindset, the rest of the league had better take notice.
When we last saw Zion in the 2020-21 season at age 20, he was averaging 27 points and seven rebounds per game on absurdly excellent efficiency of 62 eFG% and 65 TS%. At 20 he was already the best interior scorer in the league. He finished that season with an EPM of +4.2, placing him in the 96th percentile.
He was an All-Star and borderline All-NBA that season as well.
Zion has looked very good in preseason and hasn’t fully unveiled all the things he’s worked on over the summer to improve his game. But he isn’t going to tell anyone, he’s going to let his play on the court speak for itself.
“If you would have asked me two years ago, I definitely would have said, ‘Yeah, I need to remind people. I need to show the world who Zion is,'” he says. “But now, after this journey, it’s not even so much about showing the world who I am. It’s more so just proving myself right.”
A man who feels he doesn’t need to say anything to anyone but just go out and do it is a dangerous man. The NBA has been put on notice.