Meteri, Los Angeles – Zion Williamson did not hesitate.
Speaking to the media for the first time since September, the New Orleans Pelicans forward was asked if he would sign the extension that is eligible for this summer if the team offered it.
Of course, Williamson said. “I wasn’t able to sign it fast enough.”
Williamson is eligible to sign a five-year junior extension of a maximum of $181 million this summer. But after he missed the 2021-22 season with a right foot fracture, he played just 85 games in his three-year career.
Pelicans coach Willie Green said it was nice to hear Williamson say he wanted to stay in New Orleans, but was focusing on the basketball side.
“I love that he wants to be here, that he wants to be in the gym, work towards being healthy, work towards being the best player he can be,” Green said. “We love anyone who wants to be here in New Orleans with this community, with this culture. That’s what we want.”
Williamson described this season as a “tough year”, as he was not able to be on the field. In January, he began rehab in Portland away from the team and didn’t return until early March.
Once on the team, Williamson said that helped put him in a “cool space”.
“Being around guys, being in the Smoothie King [Center]Seeing the playoff environment, Williamson said. “And the locker room – we have our own locker room. My first two years, the locker room was good. But this year – I think maybe that was the playoffs – it was more together.
“Being real, it’s disgusting watching from the sidelines. I just want to be there. Just seeing the potential. We have a lot of great pieces. I’m excited to get out on the court with these guys.”
Williamson started playing 5-on-5 with his teammates and coaches late in the season and in the playoffs in New Orleans. While he was never allowed to play actual games, Williamson said Friday that he felt he could, but decided along with the coaching staff and front office that staying out would be better for him in the long run.
The Pelicans vice president of basketball operations, David Griffin, said Williamson is still a few weeks away from the next set of photos that could finally exonerate him for good.
“That would be when we crossed a bridge ‘Okay, he can do whatever he wants to do in terms of getting ready for next season without any restrictions,'” Griffin said. If it’s three a day, that’s great. Hopefully, his workload will not be monitored at this point, we hope.
“At the same time, we got to a point before we could feel confident that that was coming. So we have to be realistic in that situation as well. So, really, it’s going to be about let’s put him in the best position to succeed physically next season. And I think he’s committed. So based on what I tell you today.”
Given Williamson’s injury history, the Pelicans could look to put a protection in the deal just as the Philadelphia 76ers did in October 2017 with the center Joel Embiidwho played only 31 games in his third season after missing his first two years due to a foot injury.
And when extension talks go down, Griffin added, it will be “a challenge.”
“When it’s time to get that, we’ll get it,” Griffin said. “And now what we’re focusing on is that he’s healthy, and he’s kind of an elite condition to play basketball, and we’re going to start from there. I think once we get to that point, all of these conversations are going to be a lot easier.”
On his All-Star break, during a segment with TNT, McCollum, after a week and a half of trading in New Orleans, told the crew that he hadn’t spoken to Williamson yet and that he was “going to the bottom of it.”
When asked about his relationship with McCollum, Williamson stared straight into the camera.
“Mr. McCollum,” he said with a big smile. “That’s just a bit of a payoff. Mr. ‘I’ll get to the bottom of it.'” CJ is a wonderful man. I learned a lot from him during the short time I spent around him. A wonderful teammate. I’m excited to get on the field with him.”
McCollum and Williamson’s relationship has grown, with McCollum telling ESPN last month that the two sat next to each other at team dinners and brainstormed each other for hours.
“Honestly, I was focused on rehab at the time,” Williamson said of not speaking to his new teammate right away. “I texted CJ shortly after to apologize for it. Like I said, I wasn’t in a good place mentally. Mr. McCollum, he was great about it. Like I said, I’m excited to get on the field again.”
For Williamson, next season will be the first he manages to enter a year in the NBA with the same coach after Alvin Gentry and Stan Van Gundy were rookie last season.
He had great acclaim for Green and said he went to his coach after the Pelicans lost in Game 6 which eliminated them from the playoffs on Thursday night.
“I said, ‘Coach, whatever you want from me, whether it’s to put the team together, anything I can do,’ I’m there, coach,” Williamson said. The guys are really excited to get together this season.”
Green said that while it was important for the team’s young players to be on the field in order to push the Pelicans off post-season, it was also important for Williamson to be around the team while they were on the rise, too.
“It’s important for him to see and feel what it feels like,” Green said. “He was watching the crowds. He saw the atmosphere. To be honest – I told him – the empathy we have. I know he wants to be there. What he’s going through in terms of recovering from the injury is very difficult. I did.
“When you’re 21 and your season is derailed because you’ve been working on your game, it’s hard to pass. A lot of people say things. I try not to listen to it. It’s been great for him and all of our guys to experience what we wanted to experience this season.”
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