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Zion Williamson is trying to defy history, but precedent is challenging the start to his NBA career.
In the NBA's database of official heights and weights over the past 25 years, only four other players have been listed shorter than 6-foot-10 and heavier than 280 pounds: Glen Davis, Robert Traylor, Jahidi White and Oliver Miller. The 6-foot-6 Williamson is shorter than all of them by three inches. He is also lightyears more athletic and explosive, which opens the floor to debate about whether his usage may actually put him at greater injury risk than those four players who battled against their weight during NBA careers cut short.
We do know Williamson fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot in early August, two years after tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee, and he has missed the start of the regular season for the second time in his three-year career. He was an All-Star in between. We do not know when exactly Williamson will be back on the court. New Orleans Pelicans coach Willie Green told reporters on Tuesday that Williamson has yet to be fully cleared to practice and is 2-3 weeks away from the next round of scans on his injured foot.
Doctors initially told Williamson and the Pelicans the bone was expected to heal prior to the regular season, an optimistic timeline for his fracture. He and the team projected that optimism on media day, relaying the prognosis on Sept. 27. Scans since have revealed the bone is healing, just not at the rate of expectation.
As a result, the confident projection of a home-opening debut on Oct. 20 has quelled to crossing fingers that the bone is healed by Thanksgiving. He has not suffered a setback. Still, there is no clear timetable for his full return to the practice court, let alone his minutes-restricted debut, and in retrospect there never was.
Should Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin have made more room for the possibility Williamson would not meet the initial prognosis? Of course. The fact he had not been cleared to run at the start of training camp always made his opening-night availability unrealistic, just as the fact he has not been cleared to scrimmage with the team makes his return by the start of December unrealistic.
The hope is that Williamson's metatarsal does not heal so slowly as Indiana Pacers forward TJ Warren's navicular bone, which has left him sidelined since December. He lamented on media day, "They told me it wasn't all the way there yet, it was kind of just slowly healing, but it's gonna heal, it's just a matter of time."
A matter of time, is not what the New Orleans fanbase wants to hear, given the gloom-and-doom scenarios painted for them. Rampant speculation has been made about Williamson's longterm future on the Pelicans, all as he has publicly said, "I love it here. I love the city of New Orleans. I don't want to be anywhere else."
Multiple outlets have reported Williamson's alleged unhappiness with the organization, rooted they say in the team's handling of his return from the 2019 knee injury and Griffin's 2020 hiring of head coach Stan Van Gundy. The firing of Van Gundy in favor of Green at last season's end was an acknowledgement of their misjudgment, but the Pelicans were right to reintegrate Williamson with caution then, just as they are now.
This time around, the Pelicans, Williamson and his family all agreed to keep his foot injury private, hoping the most optimistic prognosis would allow him to rehabilitate before training camp necessitated disclosing it publicly. Williamson reported the injury to the Pelicans as it happened, and strength coach Stan Williams spent the summer in Los Angeles overseeing his recovery. They avoided months more speculation at the time, but Williamson's slower-than-expected healing process has only delayed hysteria over the injury.
The Pelicans' 1-8 start, worst in the NBA, has not quieted concerns. Another season is slipping away for a franchise that has not made the playoffs since 2018 and has two series victories in its 20-year history.
Add to that questions about the team's longterm viability in the city, where the lease on its arena expires in 2024. Owner Gayle Benson, 74, has insisted, "There is no way, as long as I’m going to be alive, that I would sell the Pelicans," and her succession plan is designed to keep them in New Orleans long afterwards. There is still no guarantee a new owner will keep them in one of the NBA's smallest and least-supported markets.
The prospect of propping up a franchise is real pressure for a 21-year-old, even one of Williamson's build.
The tenures of Chris Paul and Anthony Davis in the city lead everyone to believe Williamson will follow suit, especially if he finds the same second-round playoff ceiling his superstar predecessors did. Paul and Davis requested trades before the end of their rookie contract extensions, and we are waiting for someone to be the first max-worthy star to sign a qualifying offer and enter unrestricted free agency before his extension.
Could Williamson be that player? He would have to sign a $17.6 million qualifying offer for the 2023-24 season in New Orleans, foregoing a maximum deal worth in excess of $200 million. That is no small risk for a player who has missed more than 50% of his games and counting through his first two-plus seasons.
Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer reported that Williamson's listed playing weight of 284 pounds has exceeded 300. Former players Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and Kenny Smith criticized Williamson's fitness on "Inside the NBA," debating its impact on his latest injury timeline. On a media conference call, ESPN analyst J.J. Redick vocalized what video of his one-time Pelicans teammate's workout made clear.
"Of course I would be worried just in general about Zion, given his injury history," Redick said. "There is certainly a lot more at play here than just whether or not he ends up leaving the Pelicans in five years or four years or whatever it is. Zion has to be in better shape. That's not a secret. He’s got to get healthy."
History has been unkind to players Williamson's size, conceding no player his size has been so gifted.
Only Miller, who reached 380 pounds at his heaviest, played an NBA game past his 30th birthday, when he made 48 limited appearances for the Minnesota Timberwolves at age 33. He had been out of the league the previous four seasons, playing everywhere from Pruszków, Poland, to Gary, Indiana, and even the Harlem Globetrotters had reportedly cut him for having "no appreciation for what it takes mentally and physically."
Heart ailments limited Traylor to seven NBA seasons and ultimately ended his life at 34.
Like Williamson, White suffered a cartilage tear in his right knee that cost him the first few months of his rookie season. Surgery on a tendon in his left knee four years later effectively ended his career at age 26.
And like Williamson, Davis broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. His fracture occurred in January 2013, midway through his fifth season. It required two surgeries over the next six months, the second to replace a screw from the first. Davis, who reached 300 pounds, told reporters prior to his November 2013 return that his foot would "never be the same," and he was right. A left ankle injury in 2015 ended his career at age 29.
"I broke my fifth metatarsal and my ankle because I played too big and too fast," Davis told TMZ Sports in 2019. "The game is changing, and [Williamson] is a naturally big guy, but at the same time you have to adapt to the game. He's a big body. He jumps high. He jumps hard. Everything is hard, so the wear and tear is going to start to begin. That's one of the reasons why I stopped playing, because of my weight. ... The weight, being that big and so fast and so quick, it hurts, so he has to get his weight under control."
The foot injury has not helped Williamson's conditioning, but his commitment to fitness could also be better both during his rehabilitation and whenever he is a full participant. Again, he turned 21 in July, and he is still confronting the reality that talent is not the sole dictator of one's NBA success. Only, he is forced to do so not behind closed doors, where Moses Malone once told Barkley the hard truth that he was "fat and lazy," but on national television, where Barkley is telling the world between jokes, "You've got to get in shape."
Only time will tell if Williamson heeds that advice, just as we will eventually find out whether he can break the mold that a quartet of 6-foot-9, 290-pound players set before him. The prospect of a maximum contract beyond his next one depends on it. In the meantime, history will have to wait for Williamson's response.
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