The Pelicans had a pretty long season – the highs were high and the lows were, well, pretty low.
Not surprisingly, the team is at its best when the number 1 is in the lineup.
It’s been nearly four years since New Orleans picked Zion Williamson as the overall pick of the 2019 NBA draft. In that span, Williamson has missed 188 games out of a possible 302, including the entire 2021-22 season. This season, a lengthy absence that began in January has brought Williamson’s tally to 47 absences from 76 games and the details of his return are murky at best.
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As disheartening as Williamson’s absence this season has been, there’s a lot of encouragement to be drawn from his performances when he’s in the lineup. It took Williamson just 29 games to earn the All-Star starter bid — his averages of 26.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game showed he didn’t miss a shot after scoring the last Times had missed everything year.
New Orleans’ 17-12 record with Williamson in the lineup and peaking as the West’s No. 1 in mid-December is a reminder that the franchise has all the pieces, but any puzzle will be incomplete if the most important piece is consistently missing.
What does that mean?
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It’s not time to panic about Zion Williamson… not yet
We’ve passed the point where Williamson’s injury history is worrying. After a meniscus tear stalled the beginning of his career, Williamson has curtailed at least one premature injury in every season of his career.
In year 2 Williamson’s season ended early due to a broken thumb. Year 3 ended before it began due to a Jones fracture in his right foot. And this year, Williamson didn’t miss any action for three months due to a strained right hamstring.
The injury-prone label is apt, but a closer look at Williamson’s history reminds us that there should be some kind of distinction between players who are constantly battling injuries.
As wrong as it feels, it’s often human nature – or the nature of sports fans – to try to compare one player’s plight to another. Perhaps it’s a precautionary measure to temper expectations by preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. Who knows?
Sure, the abrupt end to Brandon Roy’s career could be used to frame Williamson’s predicament, but how Joel Embiid has bounced back after missing the first two seasons of his career (and playing just 31 games in his third) , could be used to paint a far more optimistic image.
Around this time last year, I was investigating why it’s important to be positive about Williamson’s injury heartache. While this case is a little harder to make over a year later, there’s one key element that still works in his favor: He’s 22.
The return from this season is a microcosm of Williamson’s career as a whole – as daunting as the lows have been, the highs have shown he has the potential to be an all-time great. All he has to do is lie on the floor.
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With that in mind, it’s far too early to assume that Williamson will continue to suffer such setbacks on an annual basis.
It would be one thing if Williamson hadn’t shown any signs of consistency at any point in his career, but he appeared in 61 of the first 66 games in Year 2 before being shut down for the last six because of his thumb. Had New Orleans been in the hunt for a playoff spot, he might play even more.
Understandably we just have to work with what we’ve seen, but we’re still at a point where Williamson can put that behind us and in a couple of years render those first few seasons as a blip and an odd succession of misfortunes .
Ultimately, it’s unfair to compare Williamson to anyone else because we’ve never seen anyone like him before. And going forward, the Pelicans can take steps to ensure their soon-to-be max player is ready for the postseason.
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Whether it’s planned breaks or maintenance, the focus is on getting Williamson through an 82-game season and not seeing him play in as many games as possible. The concept itself is far from alien and, to compare apples and oranges, helped the Raptors keep Kawhi Leonard fresh for their historic 2019 title run. The Sixers are currently hoping to use a similar strategy with Embiid.
If what we’ve seen of Williamson in 114 games is any indication, he has the potential to be the best player on a team that wins an NBA championship. If what we’ve seen of the Pelicans at their peak is any indication, the team has the right pieces around them to go all the way.
There is even rumbling that Williamson could make it back before the end of this season.
When it comes down to it, there’s no time to panic until it turns out Williamson will never be healthy enough to lead New Orleans to 16 NBA playoff wins. And we are far from coming to that conclusion.
At the end of the day, that’s what matters most.