Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans are at a crossroad: Is it time for him to be traded?

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When Zion Williamson was the projected No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, the league hadn’t seen that level of pandemonium for a rookie since LeBron James. Bottom-feeding teams across the league were clamoring to tank for Williamson’s services.

Williamson was seen as a young behemoth. A bruiser with bounce. He had the combined skill set of Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and even James. Four years later, he’s only played a combined 114 games. He sat out all of last season with a foot injury. This week, even though all signals from the Pelicans franchise deemed him capable of playing, he chose to sit out until he “was ready.”

After a meteoric rise, his stock and character have taken a hit. Once seen as the All-American superstar who would lead the league after James retired, he now is criticized for his weight, heart, effort, and as a teammate. So where do the Pelicans go next?

It was a telling sign when Pelicans guard CJ McCollum provided the two most telling quotes on Zion Williamson’s aloof nature, which have acted as bookends to his tenure in New Orleans. When he was first traded to the Pelicans at last season’s trade deadline, McCollum said the following in response to not having talked to Zion yet: “I haven’t had conversations with him (Zion) directly,” McCollum said about Williamson’s possible return. “I’ve spoken with some people close to him and look forward to sitting down with him sooner than later. I know about as much as you do right now, but I’m gonna get to the bottom of it.”

And then Wednesday night, when the Oklahoma City Thunder eliminated the Pelicans in the first Play-In Tournament game, McCollum’s quote made it seem Williamson’s ambivalent approach to the team that drafted him hadn’t changed.

“Availability is important, man; we’ve got to be available,” McCollum told reporters after the
game. “We’ve got to do what we need to do off the court in terms of preparation, in terms of
getting treatment, in terms of getting the right sleep, the right type of hydration, having the right
type of diet.”

It’s clear in the second quote McCollum is talking about Zion Williamson, who has played in just 114 games over four seasons. When the cameras panned to Zion on the bench during Wednesday night’s Play-In game, he looked like he added some weight from the beginning of the season, when he came in chiseled. Zion’s issues with staying in shape impede his ability to be on the court and impact winning.

Comparing Zion Williamson and Kawhi Leonard

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Furthermore, his decision-making is now in the spotlight, as contradicting opinions have formed between how healthy the organization is saying he is compared to his self-assessment. This contradiction could lead to what several prognosticators have been predicting since the Pelicans won the chance to pick him first in 2019 — a great divorce.

Zion Williamson is in a similar situation as Kawhi Leonard was in San Antonio, where he and the team’s doctors had dissenting opinions on recovering from his mysterious quad injury. Leonard only played in nine games in the 2017-18 season. Leonard eventually left the team and rehabbed in New York. Leonard eventually demanded a trade that summer and went to the Toronto Raptors, where he won a championship in his single year with the team.

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Zion Williamson and the Pelicans have tried to avoid a public back-and-forth, but all the signs point to a similar nexus point developing.

It’s not like the Pelicans haven’t tried to build a contender. General Manager David Griffin has done a great job in the backend of the draft, building around Zion’s skillset while developing Brandon Ingram and trading for McCollum. The team is young and talented and holds potential for key players like Jose Alvarado, Herb Jones, and Trey Murphy III. But where does Zion fit in? He makes them a legit contender when healthy, especially with Ingram continuing to elevate his
game. But that’s the problem, he’s rarely healthy. He has been out for back-to-back Play-in
Tournaments now. And the Pels were able to win without him last season and advanced to the playoffs to face the top-seed Phoenix Suns.

The market for a potential superstar

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The time has come for Griffin to take and make calls this summer to establish a baseline for
what a return package would look like for Zion Williamson. It’s assured most of the other 29 teams would have at least an offer. A few might even be willing to risk it all for his untapped potential. Maybe Zion just doesn’t like playing in New Orleans. He’s fawned over New York City and Dallas in interviews. But the Knicks seem better off now keeping Julius Randle and looking elsewhere, while the Mavericks might have the worst possible package to offer New Orleans. But that leaves many other teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trailblazers, Brooklyn Nets, and Houston Rockets who could put together a godfather offer of picks and young players to make it happen.

There’s no question that when he is healthy, Zion Williamson has been a dominating players in the NBA and a lethal combination of size, strength, and efficiency. He played 29 games this season, the second most since his sophomore year (61). But when he was on the court, he was good. He averaged 26 points, 7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, on .615% eFG shooting. Those are impressive numbers, especially considering that most of his shots come at the rim as backboard-shattering dunks. But those are distant memories when compared to how many times we’ve seen Zion in sweats on the Pelicans bench over the last four seasons.

This summer is his crossroads. The ball is still in his court to improve his conditioning, rest, and
diet — three of the metrics his teammate McCollum listed as priorities for all players, one through 15.

But Zion Williamson also needs to make a decision on if New Orleans is where he wants to be. Like Leonard before him, he can’t play both sides of the fence. If he wants to play elsewhere, say it, and work with the team that drafted you to get the best return for both sides. But if you want to win in the small market that has committed fully to you, then do it. Fans have seen enough of
Williamson’s smile and heard enough of him saying all the right things. The time has come to see him in action.

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter

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