In Zion Williamson’s one and only college season at Duke, he suffered a Grade 1 right knee sprain in late February with the ACC and NCAA Tournament approaching. Duke listed him as day to day, but the conversation of whether Zion should return at all had already begun.
That same conversation is happening again around Zion, who has yet to play in an NBA regular-season game after being taken No. 1 overall by the Pelicans in last June’s draft. Williamson suffered a torn right meniscus in late October, just prior to the start of the season, and was given an initial return timetable of six-to-eight weeks.
As of Sunday, Williamson has been out 10 weeks and counting. In that time, the Pelicans, who were a popular dark-horse playoff pick before Williamson went down and a bevy of other injuries began to follow, have gotten off to a 12-24 start. Entering play on Sunday, they have the second-worst record in the Western Conference. They’ve won five of their last six, but a playoff berth still appears to be a long shot.
Which begs the question: Why bring Zion back at all? Per ESPN’s Andrew Lopez, the Pelicans are concerned enough with Zion’s future health that they are trying to “tweak” the way he walks and runs. There is a growing contingent of people who believe a red-shirt year is in the best interest of both Williamson and the Pelicans, who can more or less officially forfeit the season and acquire another lottery pick while protecting their most important long-term asset.
Former NBA player and current analyst Jalen Rose considers himself among those who believe Williamson should sit out the whole season. Paul Pierce has echoed that sentiment. Pelicans vice president David Griffin, however, is indicating that sitting Williamson — if and when he’s healthy enough to play — is not going to happen. In an interview with USA TODAY Sports, Griffin said the following:
“You see the narrative out there that we will intentionally shut him down. Or that they’re idiots for not shutting him down,” Griffin said. “Well, which is it? The reality is when he’s ready, he’s going to play.”
… Griffin added, though, that Williamson is “going to have to practice several more times” before the Pelicans clear him to play. The only problem? Griffin noted, “we don’t have the days to do it.”
The Pelicans have an extended stretch of practice days available to them in mid-January. After playing at Detroit on the 13th, they fly home and have two off days — potential practice days — before playing the Jazz on the 16th. Then they have another off day before playing the Clippers on the 18th. They could even practice on the 19th before leaving for a game at Memphis on the 20th.
In theory, if the Pelicans were to practice on three or even all four of those days, and Williamson were to be a full participant, his return could come within or just outside that window.
The Pelicans aren’t going to commit to anything, but Williamson is moving closer to being cleared to play. He’s gone though his first practice and participated in a non-contact 3-on-3 scrimmage. Before New Orleans’ game against the Lakers on Friday, Zion went through pre-game warmups with the team.
You can understand the rationale of sitting Williamson, the same way the Philadelphia 76ers sat Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid for their rookie seasons. The Clippers did the same with Blake Griffin. It’s only logical that a team going nowhere in the short term would fully prioritize its long-term prospects.
But how do players get better in the long term if they don’t play in the short term? Basketball players get better by playing basketball. Not in scrimmages and practice. In games. Against real competition. With real, on-the-fly obstacles and adrenaline and the mental and physical adjustments that come from those circumstances. You can’t bubble wrap an athlete forever.
When Zion went down at Duke, and everyone was having this same conversation about whether he should shut it down for good or come back and help his team, he came back, and he was named the ACC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Yes, he got injured again, and certainly the Pelicans are going to be holding their collective breath when and if Zion makes his NBA debut soon.
But for now, Griffin appears ready to turn Zion loose when he’s ready. No holding back. Reasonable people can disagree with that approach, but those disputing it aren’t in charge of the Pelicans. Stay tuned.