Zion Williamson was supposed to return to practice on Thursday, moving one major step closer to return from a season-long absence related to offseason foot surgery. Williamson isn’t the only star-level player who hasn’t suited up yet this season—Kawhi Leonard may miss the entire year, Kyrie Irving still won’t bend on New York’s vaccine mandate, Klay Thompson is only now practicing without limitations—but Zion’s absence is unlike most others in that his team is utterly unprepared to survive without him. With Williamson, the Pelicans are feisty and great to watch; without him, they are both brutal to watch and also the fourth-worst team by net rating in the entire league. Without Williamson, the Pelicans are poop.
Which is why the update Thursday afternoon from scoopster Shams Charania, worded with his characteristic flair, is an unbelievable bummer. The right foot that Williamson broke over the summer and which was repaired surgically is still sore, and the team expects to “dial back his ramp up” in approximately a week. I took this report out into the moonlight last night in the hopes that hidden runes would clear up that timeline a little, but was unsuccessful due to cloud cover. Seems safe to say it will be at least a week before Williamson practices, assuming no further setbacks.
The Pelicans have struggled to get a firm hold of Williamson’s condition stretching all the way back to the end of last season. There’d been no reports of an injury or a resulting surgery until media day in late September, despite general manager David Griffin indicating then that Williamson’s injury and surgery both took place sometime before the Las Vegas Summer League, held in early August. It wasn’t until Zion showed up in media-day photos looking, well, humongous that fans had any reason to worry that he would not open up this regular season in the same killer shape in which he ended the last one, when he was playing at an MVP level for a Pelicans team that seemed poised to compete for a playoff spot. Griffin indicated in September that Williamson would likely miss the preseason but should be “back on the court in time for the regular season.” When the season opened and Zion was nowhere in sight, Griffin was forced to backtrack and clarify that what he meant was that Williamson was likely to return at some point during the regular season. Here it is valuable to note that there are 82 games in an NBA regular season, staged between mid-October and mid-April. It was not very encouraging to learn that Griffin merely meant that his star man might play in at least one of them.
So when a Pelicans representative—in this case head coach Willie Green, who has yet to work with a fully healthy Williamson in even one single practice—downplays the team’s concern about this latest worrying injury update, probably the thing to do is to panic. Green said on Thursday that the Pelicans are “very optimistic” that another few days of rest will bring an end to soreness lingering from a surgery conducted at least four months ago, and that these kinds of setbacks are “part of the process.” Green spoke of “wanting to dial back and reevaluate” and “being diligent about getting him back on the floor,” and normally these are the kinds of wise words that would make you feel better about the team’s handle of the situation, except that in this case a reported sticking point between Williamson and the Pelicans has been their extreme caution when evaluating his readiness to return from injury. This is the very rare case where context makes it impossible to feel good about a team being extra careful with the health of their generational superstar.
What will feel very good will be the moment when outsiders no longer have to parse and decipher opaque updates and anonymous reports about Williamson’s condition, because he is out there on a court kicking major ass. His time in the NBA has been marked by periods of transcendent play broken up by pandemic measures and leg injuries, providing just enough evidence to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is capable of incredible things, but so far without a stretch of normalcy long enough for those incredible things to cohere into a sustained period of success. It’s that tantalizing promise, that under the right circumstances Zion might already be capable of powering a contender, that make these delays so agonizing. Given the Pelicans’ record and the condition of their team, in another couple weeks it might already be too late for Zion’s presence to make any real difference. That sucks! I almost want to watch a highlight video just to remind myself of Zion’s extreme coolness. I’m doing it! Just try and stop me!
It’s not enough to simply get Zion onto an NBA court, even if fans at this point are just desperate to see him play basketball, even for a few minutes. Eventually, the Pelicans must find a way to get Zion onto the court for games that matter. Unfortunately, with each passing day and each new setback, the chances of that occurring anytime soon become more and more remote.