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Zion Williamson Shows Signs Of Life After Nationwide Concern For His Conditioning

4:22 PM EST on December 12, 2023

Zion Williamson attempts a layup
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Yes, Zion Williamson laid an egg in Vegas last Thursday, and the unavoidable comparison didn't help his cause. The 23-year-old appeared about a quarter as sprightly as the 38-year-old LeBron James, as the Pelicans lost to the Lakers 133-89 in the semifinal round of the In-Season Tournament. Williamson had 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting, with two rebounds, three assists, and three turnovers in 26 minutes of a game that largely consisted of garbage time. He did not look conditioned enough for the two-way demands of the NBA, and frequently caught his breath instead of dialing in on defense or on the glass. Williamson had been playing well recently, but that performance was enough for the bloviating class to declare open season on the poor Pelicans forward.

The TNT nu-vaudeville routine of Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal addressed Williamson with uncharacteristic sincerity, as if urging a troubled youth back on track. "Somebody has got to get a hold of him." Barkley said after Thursday's game. "'Cause he got so much talent. He's going to be somewhat successful, but he could be special. I don't know if he has a Moses Malone, who told me I was fat and lazy. He owns that organization already." Comparing the Pelicans star to himself, O'Neal said that Williamson "does not run hard" and "does not rebound," referencing his own early career follies.

The weekend offered no respite for Williamson. On Monday's episode of First Take, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith was claiming he had sources in the Louisiana culinary community and passing along their reports verbatim. "You got chefs in New Orleans who love him, they're looking for him," he said. "The word out on Zion Williamson is that 'he'll eat the table.' I'm quoting." Smith doubled down on his gastronomical reportage on Tuesday, supposedly after talking to Williamson's stepfather. He was trying to help Williamson, you see, by telling him "what they're saying about you behind your back."

That was all obvious bluster from the usual quarters, but alongside it was a genuinely concerning nugget last Friday from Times-Picayune beat reporter Christian Clark: "The Pelicans have repeatedly stressed to Williamson that his diet and conditioning need to improve." According to Clark's team sources, Williamson "doesn’t listen." That feels a bit more substantial than Stephen A. Smith's anonymous chef survey. Jasper Bibbs, Williamson's former trainer who was raving about his client's shape headed into last season, is now posting shrug emojis over a screenshot of Clark's reporting.

The Pelicans had four days off after their humiliation in Vegas, then suited up on Monday night against the league-leading 17-4 Timberwolves. Williamson, who said after Thursday's loss that he's "got to be more aggressive finding my shot," submitted his best performance of the season: 36 points, on 13-of-17 from the field and 10-of-12 from the line. Rudy Gobert be damned, all of those 17 attempts were in the paint, as Williamson rammed through the Wolves' thicket of rangy help defenders and floated above the league's second-best rim protection to hit buoyant layup after layup. The Pelicans won, 121-107.

Williamson was asked about Shaq and Chuck's comments in press after Monday's game. "If it comes from a great place and a place where they want to see me do better, thank you," he said. "But if it comes from anywhere else, everybody entitled to their own opinion."

Williamson's fate won't be determined by a single IST flop or one excellent game in December. He's still 23, on the first season of his five-year contract. This much is clear: Zion Williamson is one of the most offensively gifted players of the last decade, with subpar conditioning, a discouraging injury history, and a surrounding cast that doesn't always mesh with his ideal style of play. He's talented enough that he could probably still be an All-Star without changing anything about his approach to his job. He could probably be All-NBA simply by getting back into the shape he was back in 2021. The facts on the ground have not meaningfully changed in the last two years—what's changed is the comfort in using "simply" in the previous sentence. But the good version of Williamson is too good to give up hope.


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