Zion Williamson was once very nearly a New York Knick. When the 2019 NBA Draft lottery arrived, the Knicks had the worst record, and therefore the best chance at securing Duke's once-in-a-generation talent. But the ping pong balls didn't bounce their way, and ended up drafting Williamson's Duke teammate and close friend, RJ Barrett, at No. 3 overall. Williamson, himself, went to New Orleans, and the rest is history.
When the Pelicans traveled to New York for the first time in Williamson's rookie season, he was still recovering from a knee injury and was unable to play. That made Sunday's trip to Madison Square Garden his first NBA game at the famed venue. The Pelicans lost the game right at the end, but when asked how it felt to play at the world's most famous arena, Williamson made it clear how much he savored the moment.
"I'm glad you asked that," Williamson began. "I mean, New York is the Mecca of basketball. I love playing here. I played here in college. This is my first time playing here in the pros. This atmosphere, whether they're cheering for you, whether they're booing for you, it's amazing. Honestly, I think outside of New Orleans, obviously, I think this might be my favorite place to play outside of New Orleans. I can't even lie to you."
Before the rumor mill starts humming, it should be noted that New York is, at an absolute minimum, three years away from being able to steal Williamson away from New Orleans. Williamson's rookie contract will expire after the 2022-23 season, but when it does, he will only be a restricted free agent. The soonest he can reach unrestricted free agency is 2024, and that would require passing on a long-term contract extension with the Pelicans to take the far riskier one-year qualifying offer in 2023. While players have been rumored to consider that approach in theory, no young All-Star has ever actually done so in practice. The financial risk is too great. Were Williamson to take the traditional extension awarded to young superstars of his ilk, a four-year pact with a player option for the fifth season, he could become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2027.
So much can happen in that time frame that planning for any sort of extended recruitment would be foolish. The time for recruitment might one day come, but for now, the Knicks have a promising present to build upon, and New Orleans has enough young talent to feasibly give Williamson the sort of winning roster that stars rarely leave.
Plenty of stars have expressed affection for Madison Square Garden and New York without actually joining the Knicks, after all. LeBron James called New York his favorite city in 2008, and in 2018, after he played his final game against longtime friend Dwyane Wade, James said that he couldn't imagine the game taking place anywhere besides Staples Center or Madison Square Garden. James has obviously never played for the Knicks. Even if they don't play there, New York and its famous building have always appealed to players of a certain ilk, and now, Williamson has joined them.