Editor’s Note: This piece was initially revealed on Nov. 28 and up to date with Zion Williamson’s personal response to his milestone after finishing his a centesimal recreation on Monday.
NEW ORLEANS – Sometimes, it feels as if it wasn’t that way back when Zion Williamson made his epic arrival to New Orleans because the No. 1 decide within the 2019 NBA draft. On different days, it appears like a number of the drama surrounding his profession has been on a unending loop for years.
Either manner, Williamson reached a milestone in Monday’s 105-101 Pelicans win over the Oklahoma City Thunder that’s been almost 4 years within the making: his a centesimal profession regular-season recreation.
“It’s been a long journey,” Williamson mentioned after the sport. “Would I have liked the journey to go like that? Absolutely not. I wish I could have played every game. But at the end of the day, I’m still grateful that I went through that. It helped me realize a lot mentally, spiritually, and just growing as a man. So for me to finally hit 100 games, I didn’t even think about it, but that is a huge milestone.”
Making it to 100 video games is hardly a giant deal for many of the top-tier abilities across the league. Including playoffs, Boston’s Jayson Tatum performed in 99 video games throughout his first full season with the Boston Celtics.
But it’s been 1,258 days because the Pelicans drafted Williamson.
The highway to No. 100 has been lengthy and treacherous for the Pelicans star. During that point, Williamson’s skilled a number of the highest highs possible for a participant his age, and his lows have been about as little as it will get throughout that interval.
Let’s look again at what it took for Zion to make it right here.
What’s stored him off the courtroom?
As a lot enjoyable because it’s been witnessing a number of the superhuman issues Zion has completed, the period of time he’s spent away from the sport has stood out most throughout his first 4 years. After his 23-point, 8-rebound, 8-assist night time towards Oklahoma City, Williamson has appeared in 100 of a potential 245 regular-season video games to start out his profession. That’s an unimaginable period of time missed for somebody who remains to be solely 22 years outdated.
The well being illnesses started with a torn lateral meniscus in his proper knee simply earlier than the beginning of his rookie marketing campaign. That damage pressured him to sit down for 44 video games earlier than he made his debut in what grew to become one of many wildest performances of his profession up to now.
After his rookie season was abruptly lower quick because of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, Williamson’s expertise within the NBA bubble was short-lived. He exited the bubble earlier than the precise video games began attributable to what the staff known as a “family medical matter.” Once he returned, the staff put him on a strict minutes restriction. The Pels put collectively a few of their most lackluster performances of the season, failing to achieve the inaugural Play-In Tournament — a brand new idea many speculated was created partly to get the Pelicans into the postseason so the league might capitalize on Williamson’s recognition. Williamson didn’t seem in three of the staff’s ultimate 4 video games as soon as it was clear the Pels have been out of competition.
Nevertheless, the hype was via the roof for Williamson and the Pelicans as he entered his second season. Though the Pelicans fell in need of their objectives as a staff, Williamson met most of his particular person expectations with a traditionally nice 2020-21 offensive season whereas solely sitting 11 video games — 10 attributable to damage, one attributable to COVID-19 protocols. There was optimism throughout the group that Williamson had put his knee points behind him and was on the trail to turning into one of the crucial dominant gamers within the league.
Then, the damage bug got here again to chunk him once more. The day earlier than coaching camp began for the 2021-22 season, the Pelicans introduced that Williamson underwent surgical procedure to restore a fractured proper foot over the summer time.
“His timeline should get him back on the court in time for the regular season. That would be our hope and our view. And we’re very optimistic about what that looks like,” Pelicans government vp of basketball operations David Griffin mentioned on the time.
That timeline turned out to be manner off. Williamson was near returning in December of that season, however his ramp up was dropped at a halt as soon as he began experiencing some soreness within the foot. A number of days later, the staff introduced he’d be out 4 to 6 weeks after getting an injection in his injured foot to advertise bone therapeutic. With help from the entrance workplace, Williamson finally went to Portland to rehab on his personal away from the staff.
Williamson returned to the staff in March hoping he’d have a shot at contributing to the staff’s late-season run. The Pelicans finally reached the Play-In as Williamson superior via his rehab course of. But whereas staff officers by no means formally dominated him out for the season, it was clear they didn’t need to danger placing him on the courtroom that late within the yr after being out so lengthy with such a fancy damage.
Williamson thus missed the complete 2021-22 season as New Orleans fought again from a 3-16 begin to earn a spot within the postseason. It was a devastating expertise for him. He was pressured to observe his staff ascend with out him and shine in an eventual first-round sequence defeat to the top-seeded Phoenix Suns, though he felt he was wholesome sufficient to contribute on the time.
In response, he’s channeled these unfavourable feelings to make sure he stays bodily, mentally and emotionally ready for a 2022-23 season that’s pivotal for his personal profession and the Pelicans’ future. While he’s missed 5 of the Pelicans’ first 19 video games with minor hip and proper foot soreness, Williamson has progressively began trying like himself once more as a dynamic offensive drive. He’s even kicked in a bit of extra effort on the defensive finish, as criticism of his game on that end has become more pointed.
In addition to all of the accidents, Williamson’s first few seasons have been outlined by challenges with sustaining his conditioning and staying in peak bodily form. Fans and media alike have been astonished by Williamson’s struggles to maintain weight off whereas going via the rehab course of for his accidents. As I’ve reported earlier than, several within the organization were well aware that he was greater than 300 kilos on a number of events throughout his first few seasons.
The criticism reached its peak throughout a section on TNT’s “Inside The NBA” in November 2021, when Charles Barkley and the remainder of the crew openly mocked Williamson after a video of him working out before a game went viral.
“I’m concerned,” Barkley mentioned on the time. “He’s already hurt. You should not get hurt when you’re young. … He’s gonna have to learn, even when you’re hurt, you have to control your eating.”
Williamson later admitted that the fixed consideration on his physique received to him. Eventually, he mentioned they fueled him as he labored to return from the foot damage that price him a complete season.
This summer time, Williamson employed a private chef, Jhonas Lewis, and mapped out an intense eight-week offseason exercise dash along with his energy and conditioning coach, Jasper Bibbs. When it was over, Bibbs spoke glowingly about Williamson’s work ethic and even mentioned the Pels’ star was “a better athlete than he’s ever been.”
“I’m very happy with his commitment to not only his conditioning but his commitment to doing all the tedious soft-tissue work, the stretching and his nutrition,” Bibbs told me in September. “He’s been phenomenal with his nutrition. I’m very happy about that for him. As he continues his NBA career, it’s amazing that he’s starting to develop these habits right now at such a young point in his career. It’s just phenomenal to see.”
While Williamson has not revealed precisely what number of kilos he misplaced within the offseason, it was clear he got here into the yr a lot slimmer than his earlier two seasons. Only time will inform if that work will improve his recreation and/or maintain him off the damage record in the long term. However, it was a optimistic step within the path that wanted to occur as Williamson started taking the required steps to achieve his large potential.
We already understand how good he’s when he does play
Skepticism about Williamson has at all times been centered on off-court questions as a result of the stuff he does on the courtroom has been unprecedented for a participant with simply 99 video games beneath his belt. Yes, he nonetheless has loads of work to do to enhance as a defender and rebounder. But he’s in rarified air amongst offensive weapons that bend defenses to their will.
From the second Williamson stepped into the league, he instantly grew to become one of many NBA’s most dominant scorers across the basket. To this level, he hasn’t proven a lot variety in his offensive repertoire, however that’s largely as a result of he’s been in a position to get to the ring constantly, it doesn’t matter what opposing defenses throw at him. His mixture of energy, quickness and explosiveness is not like virtually something we’ve ever seen within the NBA.
“He’s a phenomenal talent. He’s able to do some special things on the court when he’s going,” Pelicans coach Willie Green mentioned. “With the way he attacks the paint and gets his teammates involved, it can be a nightmare for teams trying to guard him. He constantly keeps you on your heels.”
Through 99 video games, Williamson is averaging 25.2 factors, 6.9 rebounds and three.4 assists whereas taking pictures an absurd 60 % from the sphere. He crossed the two,500-point threshold final Friday towards Memphis, turning into simply the twelfth participant in NBA historical past to achieve that mark earlier than his a centesimal NBA recreation. The final to do it? Michael Jordan in 1984. Williamson would be the solely participant on that record to take action whereas taking pictures 60 % or higher from the sphere.
Williamson’s unimaginable scoring prowess is extra spectacular contemplating opponents know precisely the place and the way he desires to attain, however nonetheless can’t cease him. He is a monster within the paint who assaults with a relentless mindset. He embraces bodily punishment greater than virtually every other participant on this period, and his finesse across the basket is underrated compared to his overwhelming brute drive.
In the 2020-21 season, his healthiest thus far, Williamson led the league with 20.3 factors within the paint per recreation, turning into the primary participant since Shaquille O’Neal in 2001-02 to common at the least 20 factors within the paint for a complete season. When you’re getting in comparison with prime Shaq throughout your second season as a professional, it’s protected to say you’re doing one thing proper.
Those gaudy total numbers have additionally include a outstanding stage of consistency. Williamson is an offensive dynamo nearly each time he steps on the ground. During his first 100 video games, Williamson has been held beneath 20 factors solely 20 occasions, with 5 of these events taking place this season as he adjusts to a brand new system and new teammates. He’s been held to single digits simply twice, and a type of got here final week when he performed simply 23 minutes throughout a blowout win over a shorthanded Golden State squad.
That consistency cuts each methods. Like Kawhi Leonard, a famous person identified for taking part in the identical manner each night time he steps on the courtroom, Williamson has been in a position to keep a baseline as a scorer with out deviating fairly often. Williamson nonetheless hasn’t scored greater than 40 factors in a recreation, and he’s solely exceeded 35 eight occasions.
“You can’t stop him. It’s just bully ball,” former Pelicans guard JJ Redick said in March of 2021. “I’ve played with strong players that scored a lot of points on the interior, whether it was Dwight (Howard) or Blake (Griffin) or Joel (Embiid). But there’s really nothing that compares to Zion and what he’s doing right now in terms of just the efficiency and volume so close to the basket.”
He’s carried out all this for a franchise that’s been unstable
It additionally must be mentioned that Williamson has handled an incredible quantity of organizational change and franchise unease to start out his profession. Williamson went via three head coaches in his first three seasons and large roster overhauls linked to every teaching change. Only two teammates – Brandon Ingram and Jaxson Hayes – stay from Williamson’s rookie season. He handled fixed rumors about his need to go away New Orleans earlier than the top of his rookie contract, which turned out to be untrue. And as if that wasn’t sufficient, his rookie season was totally turned the other way up by the league COVID-19 shutdown.
“I’m on three coaches. This is the first year where the locker room has looked somewhat the same players-wise,” Williamson mentioned Monday. “The thing I can take away from that is that it’s just good to kind of have steady people around me, you know?”
Those three coaches couldn’t have been extra totally different from one another. Williamson went from a enjoyable, unfastened coach in Alvin Gentry as a rookie, to a strict disciplinarian in Stan Van Gundy in 2020-21, to Green, who falls someplace between the 2.
He’s needed to adapt to every coach’s totally different philosophy for utilizing him within the correct manner. As a rookie, Williamson was largely used as a post-up possibility in Gentry’s offense, giving New Orleans some much-needed stability in half-court units. In Williamson’s second season, Van Gundy absolutely unleashed “Point Zion” on the world, exhibiting how devastating the Pelicans’ star could be as a lead ballhandler.
Green, up to now, has cycled Williamson into totally different roles whereas emphasizing the significance of creating an influence in different areas. As Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum have taken on greater roles within the Pelicans’ offense, together with rising younger gamers like Trey Murphy and Jose Alvarado, it’s taken Williamson a while to learn to decide his spots even when the offense isn’t centered round him. This is a giant motive why he’s had some uncharacteristically low-scoring video games this season. While Green in the end believes this strategy will make life simpler for Williamson as a result of defenses gained’t be capable to key in on him as a lot, it’ll nonetheless take the Pelicans’ star a while to totally adapt to how he must play. Overall, Zion has handled the transition pretty effectively, however he nonetheless has extra work to do to get on the identical web page as his new coach to satisfy expectations on each ends of the courtroom.
“When I came out my rookie year, I was using talent to get me by. The more I played, the game slowed down,” Williamson mentioned Monday. “I’m able to see passes, pick and choose when I want to get to my spots, when to attack. So I would say my game has grown maturity-wise and then IQ-wise.”
Some of Williamson’s off-court actions – his weight struggles, minor media slip-ups and sometimes distancing himself from teammates whereas rehabbing – have unnecessarily made his maturation course of harder. Still, he’s skilled extra instability round him than any younger participant ought to in his first few seasons, not to mention one making an attempt to beat with so many damage points.
The subsequent 100 video games will cement his fame
Now that the primary 100 are (lastly) out of the best way, these subsequent 100 video games will play a large position in how Williamson is considered amongst his friends and, probably, how effectively he stacks up all-time with different nice forwards.
Unlike his first few seasons, Williamson isn’t being requested to save lots of the Pelicans from their very own dysfunction and poor roster building. He’s enjoying on a staff loaded with expertise up and down the roster and training workers. He has a entrance workplace that’s adeptly stacked property as much as fortify the roster for the longer term. He has two co-stars by his aspect in Ingram and McCollum who’ve every confirmed they’ll lead the staff with or with out him.
At this level, it’s all on Zion. How good does he need to be? How critically is he going to take his well being and bodily type? Is he prepared to make the required sacrifices to win on the highest stage? Will his physique maintain up lengthy sufficient to permit him to reply any of those questions?
These questions will likely be answered over the subsequent few years as Williamson makes an attempt to determine himself because the face of this franchise. It will likely be fascinating to see how a lot he can put the wacky begin to his profession behind him and show he’s every thing the individuals thought he could be on draft night time in 2019.
The hope for the Pelicans is the trail to 200 video games will likely be much less dramatic and extra profitable. But on the very least, they’d settle for if it didn’t take 4 extra years for him to get there.
(Top photograph of Zion Williamson: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)
‘I’m not going to let the city down’: Zion Williamson cements his commitment to New Orleans