Zion Williamson is back and the 22-year-old believes he’s better than he’s ever been.
Despite the vast array of talent which will be on display at Barclays Center on Wednesday night, most eyes will be on the New Orleans Pelicans forward as he makes his long-awaited return to NBA basketball.
For Williamson, the No 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, the ability has never been in question but his conditioning became one of the hottest discussion topics among NBA fans after pictures emerged of him having seemingly ballooned in weight after suffering a broken foot followed by a rehabilitation setback which stopped him playing for the entirety of last season.
It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since we have seen his hulking powerhouse of a frame devastate on an NBA basketball court. Before missing last season, Williamson made the sublime look easy in New Orleans, averaging 27 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in 2020.
If he can reach that level again, then it automatically transforms New Orleans into a very credible threat. But it’s been a long road back for Williamson. After bearing the brunt of a ferocious backlash to his perceived poor conditioning – in the midst of a long and difficult rehab, which is already challenging enough for any young player – Zion is ready to show the world what they’ve been missing.
Although that’s not his motivation for returning to NBA All-Star level play, it’s just what he sees as his mission.
“I’ve grown,” Williamson told Sports Illustrated. “I learned a lot about myself, learned more about the game.
“If you would have asked me two years ago, I definitely would have said, ‘Yeah, I need to remind people. I need to show the world who Zion is’. But now, after this journey, it’s not even so much about showing the world who I am. It’s more so just proving myself right.”
In December last year, tests showed regression in the healing of his broken foot, just as he thought he was about to get back playing, after what was already a long lay-off, and he admits that the incision of criticism which came his and His family’s way was almost too much to bear.
“I was rehabbing and in my mind I’m thinking, ‘man, in two weeks I’m about to play again’. And then I didn’t,” Williamson said.
His mother, stepdad and brother, Noah, who was just eight years old at the time, were enveloped in the backlash – which included pundits like former colleague JJ Redick calling him a “detached team-mate”.
“To see it affecting my family, it weighed on me,” Williamson said. “An eight-year-old having to deal with stuff like that, being asked questions that he don’t fully understand yet, that’s a lot. It bothers me that people would even do that to him.
“I felt helpless. I couldn’t do nothing about it. While [pundits] are telling me I don’t care about my team-mates, or I’m a bad team-mate, or I don’t want to be somewhere, the whole time I’m worried about my foot. I’m worried about [hoping] my foot heals right, because if it doesn’t, who knows, I may not get to play basketball again.”
Much of the criticism of Williamson as a team-mate stemmed from the fact he didn’t reach out straight away to CJ McCollum when the Pels dealt role players and draft picks to acquire the talented shooting guard from the Portland Trail Blazers.
The truth is not perhaps as it first seemed though. Williamson was recuperating in isolation, focusing on getting his body right and any detachment appears to have been with a view to building everything together to become the best version of himself come game-time on Wednesday night.
“Very active, very engaged, very involved, very cognisant of what’s going on,” is how McCollum described his younger team-mate, before adding: “But he also understands that the onus is on him now to do things the right way, to continue to eat the right way, to do the work the right way.
“I think he’s at that stage now where he’s taking responsibility for his actions. The change has to come, and the change has to come from him. And he knew that.
“The best version he can give us will be the best version of our team.”
Zion leaned very heavily on the Pelicans support and training staff to ensure he did not crumble in his darkest hours and the result is a player who is hungrier than ever to fulfil his stratospheric potential.
They picked him up when he felt at his lowest and alongside the Pels’ support staff and with his own training regimen added in for good measure, the forward is now looking leaner and more sculpted and reportedly clocking speed test times that some guards in the NBA can’t even match.
It makes for a supremely enticing prospect as Williamson prepares to play his first competitive basketball in 17 months.
On the other side of the floor will be a former MVP who recognises what it’s like to be a target for criticism and whom people (albeit for totally different reasons) believed he could never be successful because of his frame.
“You’ve seen guys at that size, 6-7, that can get up and down the floor and move – but not at that level, though,” Kevin Durant said. “You’ve seen guys like Jason Maxiell. I’m not saying they jump as high as Zion, but they were undersized guys that played bigger. And Zion’s one of those guys.
“Rodney Rogers – I’m missing so many guys that were tall at 6-6, Charles Barkley, bruiser-type guys but played bigger. But Zion’s athleticism trumps all of theirs by far. When you add that to the mix, it makes him a one-of-one.”
The Pelicans certainly showed their faith in Williamson with a contract extension worth at least $193m, announced this July, but one which includes weight and body-fat requirements as a caveat.
“I guess there is some trickiness to it: Which Zion do you get?” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “But I think you’d be foolish not to expect an exceptional player. He’s so talented and gifted. He causes problems for everybody, no matter, I think, what state his body and game is in. He’s still such a unique athlete and player.
“So we’ve got to be prepared. We can’t expect anything less than his best or we’ll be surprised and we’ll be second. And when you’re reactive, you’re in trouble.”
Williamson rolled his left ankle a week ago against the Miami Heat but declared following the game that he was fine. As a precaution, the Pelicans held Williamson out of their final preseason game on Friday and limited him in practice on Sunday.
On Monday, Williamson went through a full practice and declared “I’m playing Wednesday,” when asked about his availability for the season opener.
“I didn’t really get to practice fully [on Sunday] because they were taking precautionary measures, but the last two days of practice have been intense. I think it’s been great for our team building, and I think we’re ready for the season.”
Monday was one of the few practices the Pelicans have since training camp opened when the projected starting five – Williamson, McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas and Herb Jones – were all available. The fourth year phenom feels that getting the whole band together at the perfect time could prove very important heading into the clash with Brooklyn, which boasts the might of Durant, Kyrie Irving and another player looking to prove himself in the league all over again in Ben Simmons.
“I think it was very important for us,” Williamson said. “You don’t want to just go out in the first game feeling foreign. We got a great practice in. It was intense. I’m just excited for Wednesday.”
Watch the New Orleans Pelicans @ Brooklyn Nets, live on Sky Sports Arena and Main Event late on Wednesday night from 12.30am.