Noting the unfortunate news that Zion Williamson had, in fact, torn the meniscus in his right knee before ever playing a regular season game, it’s important to remember to take a deep breath, relax, and understand that Williamson will, eventually, be back playing basketball on an NBA court. Objectively, it could have been worse. He had surgery on Monday, and the Pelicans offered a six-to-eight week timetable for his return, suggesting he might be back in December if all goes well. Perhaps Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry put it best on Friday at Madison Square Garden, ahead of New Orleans’ Zion-less preseason win over the Knicks: “He’s not dead, guys.”
Although he’s heavier, stronger, and more explosive than any person should be—much less one who stands 6’6”—viewing Williamson like a walking injury risk and declaring his chances at longevity dead on arrival would be shortsighted. It’s true that there’s a great deal of force impacting his body each time he lands, exacerbated by the weight and sheer force of his landings, but it’s the same sort of Faustian bargain that basketball’s best athletes have dealt with for decades. Maybe, as the viewing public, we’re just a little more attune to these things by now. The Pelicans, just like the rest of the NBA, were well aware of what they were getting themselves into. Anyone who watched Williamson’s preseason performances can tell you that having him healthy should be well worth it.
You might call it fortuitous that a week before New Orleans won the draft lottery, they hired Aaron Nelson, perhaps the most accomplished and well-respected athletic trainer in the NBA, away from the Phoenix Suns. On arrival, executive vice president David Griffin stumped for an overhaul of the Pelicans’ practice facility and additional resources and investment from ownership, and got what he asked for. New Orleans made a financial commitment to increased infrastructure precisely for situations like these, even before Williamson was in the fold, and safe to say the team will handle this situation carefully. The hope would be that he comes back stronger than before, and optimistically, modern medical advancements will make the entire recovery process simpler and easier.
Ultimately, if you have to draw short straws, you might rather something like this happen now, before the season, where there’s no hurry for Williamson to rush back, and any potential weight of expectation hasn’t overwhelmed the state of affairs. New Orleans was viewed by most as a fringe playoff team, assuming Williamson’s health. The Pelicans must now navigate a tricky early-season schedule without him, and by the time he comes back, there could be a damper on any pressure to compete immediately. While it’s tempting and exciting to look at the revamped roster and hope for immediate results, the fact of the matter is that Williamson’s career, as well as the health of the organization’s rebuild, are long-term projects that go hand in hand.
If Williamson ends up missing more time than expected to get his body right, or if he returns and is load-managed the rest of the season, if that falls in keeping with the true timeline the Pelicans envision, that’s fine, too. At this point, we’ve seen what he can be when he’s right, and New Orleans would be justified managing his situation that way, as opposed to a regular rookie in need of NBA seasoning. He could probably play 50 games and still win Rookie of the Year. None of those things really matter, for the time being. And the Pelicans have the type of depth and talent to stay afloat until he’s absolutely ready.
Think of this situation in the way an NFL team might split carries between two running backs. The goal here is preserving and extending Williamson’s athletic peak, above all. And TV ratings and ticket sales aside…what other way is there to look at it? It often pays to be a realist. He’ll be back, eventually. The bigger questions can wait.