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Is Zion Williamson a bust or will he live up to his potential this season?

Zion Williamson
Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans star just finished his shift that entailed dominating his opponent with his brute strength, developing shot and crafty playmaking. Zion Williamson couldn’t clock out just yet.

After appearing in only 194 out of a possible 308 regular-season games amid various ailments through his first four NBA seasons, Williamson’s potential mostly points to his availability.

So after helping the Pelicans to a 116-106 win over the LA Clippers last Friday with a season-high 32 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals, Williamson, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, worked extensively with the Pelicans’ medical team before his post-game interview.

“A lot of recovery and a lot of extra things off the court in order to keep my body in great shape to lower the risk of injury,” Williamson said moments later. “The training staff has been a big help with that, and setting up things away from basketball. I’m making the most of the technology and equipment that we have.”

How recent NBA No. 1 draft picks have fared this season

PlayerTeamDraft YearPointsAssistsReboundsFG%

Victor Wembanyama
Spurs2023192.6 (blocks)9.443.1

Paolo Banchero

Cade Cunningham

Anthony Edwards
Zion WilliamsonPelicans201923.24.65.954.7

Deandre Ayton
(drafted by Suns)

Avoiding injury is paramount for Zion Williamson

Too early to tell whether that ensures Williamson avoids another major injury.

Williamson played only 29 games last season and stayed sidelined after Jan. 2 with an injured right hamstring. Williamson missed the entire 2021-22 campaign to recover from off-season surgery on his right foot. And Williamson appeared in only 24 games during his rookie season (2019-20) amid a limited workload surrounding his surgically repaired lateral meniscus in his left knee.

Because of his poor durability history, Williamson skipped Saturday’s game against the Utah Jazz as part of the Pelican’s plan to preserve him on the second night of a back-to-back. He sat during three other games this season for the same reason.  Just like with their ninth-place ranking in the Western Conference (9-8), the Pelican remain aware that Williamson’s promising early returns could change dramatically.  Nonetheless, the Pelicans have become increasingly encouraged with both his play and improved availability.

“He’s still finding his rhythm and still finding his conditioning,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “But he’s getting better and better as the season progresses.”

More importantly, the Pelicans have seen Williamson become better and better with improving his dieting, training and movement patterns.

“He’s taking care of his body. He gives a (expletive),” Pelicans forward Jonas Valanciunas said. “That is a big thing. He’s been a pro this year. He’s growing. He’s getting more experience. Every time that he steps on the court, he does stuff.”

How Zion Williamson is handling his offensive role

Williamson ranks 24th in the NBA in points per game (23.2) and 46th overall in assists (4.6). The Pelicans also noted that Williamson fares second overall in points per game in the paint (18.6), second in restricted field-goal percentage (67.2%) and sixth in second-chance points (3.8).

With Pelicans guard CJ McCollum missing the past 11 games to recover from a collapsed lung, Williamson and Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram have also increased their shared play-making responsibilities.

Amid a recent five-game losing streak following a 4-1 start,  however, Williamson lamented that he’s “taking a little bit of a back seat right now.” Afterward those losses, the Pelicans held a meeting partly to discuss how to best feature Williamson on offense.

“We weren’t on the same page as a team,” Williamson said. “After the team meeting, we decided what page we would be on and what route we were able to take. When everybody was on the same page, we were doing a lot better.”

New Orleans has since won five of its last seven games while putting more trust in Williamson to assume both scoring and playmaking roles without overextending himself. Since that meeting, Williamson has averaged 25.6 points on 59.6% shooting and 5.2 assists.  In related news, the Pelicans’ recent five wins all coincided with Williamson playing.

“It’s his feel for the game,” Green said. “It’s something that he’s had for a while. We play off of him. With his gravity to the basket, teams have to collapse on him. He’s still getting to the rim, or making the simple pass to his teammates.”

If only it were that simple.

In the Pelicans’ recent win over the Clippers, Williamson put together his best performance of the season by punishing his opponent with drives to the basket, occasionally making mid-range jumpers and connecting open teammates for easy baskets. Williamson still committed five turnovers after forcing passes. Williamson still collected two fouls after charging recklessly into the lane.

“It’s an adjustment for him,” Ingram said. “He feels like he can beat his man every time down the floor. But to keep his teammates involved, he has them stay connected. That’s the part where he’s made a jump to bring everybody with him as he’s being aggressive.”

Can Zion Williamson stay consistently healthy and productive?

That should leave the Pelicans feeling both intrigued and anxious about Williamson.

Williamson entered this season averaging 25.8 per game in his first four seasons, numbers that rank 10th in NBA/ABA history for highest scoring averages. He also has shot 60.5% from the field in his first four seasons, which ranks in the top five in NBA/ABA history for highest shooting percentage. The only kicker: Williamson is not listed in either category because he has neither played in enough games nor has he taken enough shot attempts to qualify.

SeasonGames playedPointsReboundsFG%
2021-22Did not play (foot injury)

Green described Williamson’s development as “a work in progress” partly because of McCollum’s indefinite absence. After appearing in only 10 games together last season amid overlapping injuries, Williamson, Ingram and McCollum have only played in three games together this season.

Regardless, the Pelicans have become pleased with Williamson’s work habits, even if his lack of workout videos have sparked scrutiny about his training diligence.  

“I can post as many workouts as I want. But if I don’t do anything when I get on the court, what is it really going to mean?” Williamson said. “That’s my mindset with it. To each their own. I know everybody has different mindsets. But for me, if I don’t do anything on the court, there is no point for me to post workouts.”

So far, that’s OK. The Pelicans like how Williamson has played and trained so far.  Time will tell whether Williamson can keep things that way amid New Orleans’ quest to build on its lone first-round playoff appearance (2022).

“We’re trying to become one of those championship-contending teams that is always in the mix,” Williamson said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Mark Medina is an NBA insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on TwitterInstagramFacebook, and Threads.

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