New Orleans Pelicans star Zion Williamson has not played in an NBA game since May 5, 2021. Barring any unforeseen issues in training camp, that drought will finally come to an end on Oct. 19, when the Pelicans take on the Brooklyn Nets in their season opener.
With less than a month until he can play meaningful basketball again, Williamson is raring to go.
"I've never dealt with a layover like this," Williamson said during the team's annual media day on Monday. "That's a long time without playing the game. But my excitement level is through the roof, I'm just ready to get back on the court. My focus over the summer was just get back to playing shape, playing condition and honing my craft as usual. I feel like I'm at my best right now. I feel like I'm moving faster, jumping higher, I feel great."
That's exactly what everyone in New Orleans, and the broader basketball world was hoping to hear. Last year, Williamson suffered a broken foot that required surgery. At the team's media day, vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said they were hopeful he would be ready by opening night. Instead, the timeline kept getting pushed back, and in December it became clear there were complications with his recovery process. He briefly relocated to Portland to rehab on his own and was eventually ruled out for the season.
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Since being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, Williamson has only played 85 games due to an array of injuries. He's been electric when he has been on the floor, averaging 25.7 points and seven rebounds on 60.4 percent from the field, but his inability to stay healthy and in shape have become a serious concern. Though the team was eager to sign him to a five-year rookie max extension this offseason and invest at least $193 million in his future,.
This season will be a real test for Williamson, not only on a personal level but a team one as well. The Pelicans acquired CJ McCollum at the trade deadline last season and put up a serious fight in the first round of the playoffs against the top-seeded Phoenix Suns. With Williamson, McCollum, Brandon Ingram and a number of interesting young players, this team has a chance to make some noise in the Western Conference.
"This group is special," Williamson said. "Training camp is gonna really be like my first time playing intense team basketball with them. So I feel like I'm gonna know a lot more after that. But on paper and from what I've seen on the sidelines last year we really have a special group.
"Having a full camp is definitely gonna help, but any time anybody plays with a new group there's always gonna be an adjustment period, a learning period. I've been texting BI, CJ about spots they like and certain points of the game. Do they like to start the game off early being aggressive, do they try to get the lay of the land? Because all three of us can't be out there trying to figure out the lay of the land and not being aggressive. It's just learning my teammates and fitting in where I can."
As Williamson noted, there is going to be an adjustment period for this group, and where they end up in a top-heavy West remains to be seen. To a large extent it will depend on Williamson not only staying healthy but reaching the potential he's shown in his brief time on the court in the league.
After a positive summer in which he not only got in tremendous shape but came to peace the events of the past year, there's plenty of reasons to have faith in Williamson and the Pels.
"I've learned to appreciate this process," Williamson said. "I could never really put it into words with all the adversity, all the cons.
"But the Notorious B.I.G. album, 'Ready to Die,' that album lyrically -- how he talked about stress, what he was dealing with, just feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders, just feeling like you're standing alone. That album really helped kinda shift my mindset and find true resolve within the game. I'm 22, I've been through a lot in the past year and some change -- some things you wish didn't happen. But from that album you learn that's life, things are gonna happen and you gotta roll with 'em."