CHICAGO – Zion Williamson was a no-show at the NBA’s draft combine, his official pre-draft duties ending in a ballroom at the Chicago Hilton, the center of attention when the New Orleans Pelicans shockingly landed the No. 1 pick.
The shadow of Zion, well, that still blankets the city.
Let’s start with the first, most ludicrous Zion Williamson narrative to emerge from the lottery: Zion could go back to Duke. Think about that: Zion Williamson, he of the exploding shoe and the most famous injury in college basketball last season, the player who found himself at the center of speculation that he could punt on the rest of his post injury season could return for another go-round in the unpaid ranks.
Cable networks love this kind of mindless chatter, no matter how foolish they know it is. Zion isn’t going back to Duke. He’s not walking away from $40-ish million in guaranteed money. He’s not reentering the draft next year, when he once again will have no control over who drafts him. He’s not stopping the clock on his second contract, which is a big reason prospects enter the draft early in the first place. He never gave any indication he planned to do anything but enter the draft, but that didn’t stop pundits from speculating that he might.
Cam Reddish found himself dragged into the Zion drama. At the combine, Reddish—Zion’s teammate at Duke and a projected top-ten pick—found himself peppered with Zion-related questions, from the spotlight Williamson was under (“I do think it’s a little unfair,” said Reddish) to his review of Zion’s personality (“He’s a phenomenal guy to be around. He’s all laughs and giggles. He’s super, super humble. He shouldn’t be.”)
In an interview with a radio station in Baton Rouge this week, Williamson’s stepfather, Lee Anderson, attempted to quell any speculation that Zion would do anything but stay in the draft.
“One thing that Zion has always been taught, 'You accept the things that you can't change and change the things that you can change.'” Anderson said. “And this is one of the things that he had nothing to do with. It's the process of the NBA. Certainly, we're excited about the Crescent City down in New Orleans.”
Besides: New Orleans isn’t New York, but it isn’t Chernobyl, either. The Pelicans have an experienced coach in Alvin Gentry, a championship winning general manager in David Griffin and an owner in Gayle Benson who is committed to providing the team with the resources needed to be successful. In between celebratory whoops in the lottery drawing room on Tuesday, Gentry revealed that Griffin and Aaron Nelson, the Pelicans new Vice President of Player Care and Performance, submitted a plan to upgrade the teams facilities. The renovations, Gentry said, cost around $800,000. Benson rubber stamped it.
Indeed, the Pelicans offer Williamson a committed organization—just not a committed, high level teammate. In the aftermath of the lottery, there was buzz the Pelicans luck could influence Davis, whose midseason trade demand derailed New Orleans season. Since taking over the top executive job last month, Griffin has made it clear his top priority is to convince Davis to stay, which he reiterated to SI.com on Tuesday.
“We have reason to believe that we can build something that is attractive,” Griffin said. “If I’m Anthony Davis I’m skeptical, obviously. He’s wanted to win this whole time. He felt compelled to try to win elsewhere. I think if you look at the totality of where this organization is and where we’re going, we feel very strongly that we’re going to be the environment that he wants to be a part of. And if we’re not, that’s fine and we’ll go from there. I’m looking at this as there is no reason he wouldn’t want to win with us because it’s what we do. It’s who we are. And I think culturally we’re about the same things.”
And the impact of the No. 1 pick?
“Elite players want to play with elite talent,” Griffin said. “This is an incredible situation. We said coming into this that we didn’t know what would happen, but we knew we were sort of the epicenter of the offseason. Now that’s true to an even greater degree.”
Zion will be the new face of the Pelicans, but when Griffin gets around to trading Davis—a byproduct of having the first pick allows New Orleans the flexibility to slow play a Davis deal this offseason—he will undoubtedly bring back a collection of young players and draft picks to build around him. The Pelicans may not have been the starting point Zion envisioned, but it could turn out to be an ideal place for him.