Does restraining Duke basketball legend Zion Williamson’s game seem insane?
By now, it’s obvious the New Orleans Pelicans have no hopes of becoming champions with Zion Williamson, right? Isn’t it clear they’re seeking the fastest way to force him out? Well, some folks are drawing those conclusions from the franchise’s perceived disinterest in having the 6-foot-6, 285-pound rookie as healthy, high-flying, and happy as he was in his Duke basketball heyday.
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On ESPN’s Tuesday edition of First Take, following Williamson’s 23 points, seven boards, and five dimes across a mere 25 minutes in a 109-99 Monday night win over the Memphis Grizzlies, talking head Stephen A. Smith weighed in with what all he’s been observing, hearing, and whiffing of late:
“I think [the Pelicans are pampering him]. And I certainly think that’s how he has come across…Something’s wrong. Something’s fishy here…When you look at a guy like Zion Williamson — got hurt in high school, got hurt in college, got hurt in Summer League, comes back after a 4.5-month layoff, seemed a bit gimpy — something doesn’t seem right, and I’m concerned about him moving forward in terms of him being a bit injury-prone. But in the same breath, he’s 20.”
Despite the latest W, the 29-38 Pelicans sit No. 11 in the Western Conference standings, still 2.5 games back of the No. 8 Grizzlies with only five games remaining in their regular season. With this in mind, Smith questioned why New Orleans would even have Williamson in the Orlando bubble if they aren’t going to play him at least 30 minutes a game, a far cry from his 15 and then 14 minutes in the two losses that tipped off the squad’s now-all-but-hopeless playoff push:
“You are managing him to this degree after he just had 4.5 months off…videos out of him on social media working out, looking like Bane from Dark Knight Rises, muscles everywhere…and then it’s time to compete, to engage in competition, and in close games in the fourth quarter, he’s on the bench watching because they need to be concerned. I think it’s unfair to Alvin Gentry and his coaching staff. I think it’s unfair to Zion Williamson…”
Smith did address counterarguments, like the one contending Williamson requires extra pampering in light of the undisclosed family medical emergency that kept him from competing in late-July scrimmages. And the lively debater did his best to shoot those down by essentially reminding the Pelicans that a person’s ability to persevere — and other features of a champ — won’t shine through while in the grasp of overprotective guardians:
“Sometimes, you gotta play through [soreness, etc.]…The dude is 20 years old. You gotta let him play. If you are going to treat him this way, how is he really going to develop into that bonafide star we are all confident he will be?”
A slightly sweeter take on the former Duke basketball supercharged airbus
Max Kellerman, Smith’s sparring partner on the show, wasn’t quite as harsh in criticizing New Orleans brass regarding their restrictions on Williamson, who has averaged 22.3 points and 6.4 rebounds across 22 appearances this season while shooting 57.9 percent from the field yet has seen only 28.1 minutes per game (only 18.0 per contest thus far since the restart). But the totality of the expert’s response suggests he subscribes to a similar train of thought:
“So what’s [Zion Willliamson], a jet engine in a truck’s body? We don’t know what this is. Neither do the Pelicans. This has never existed before…one of a kind. So I think I understand their thinking discretion is the better part of valor here; or rather, err on the side of caution here because this is their franchise player. They have talent on the team — but not like this…”
“I think he looked…out of shape. And Zion might be one of these guys who has to, kind of, play himself into shape…And if they’re concerned about the minutes he is on the court, there is only so much he can do to get into that kind of shape. But how do they finesse that?”
Somewhat answering his own question, Kellerman gave the Pelicans what basically amounts to a warning when it comes to their treatment of Williamson moving forward:
“Just like you can ruin a guy by rushing him, you can ruin a guy by holding him back too much.”
Unfortunately, if the Pelicans don’t value that concern — and they have yet to show any signs that they intend to — then the only logical solution for Zion Williamson in a couple of years will be to play elsewhere.
As for now, fans — including Dukies who gobble up Pelicans news as a result of the franchise also boasting former Blue Devils JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram, Frank Jackson, and Jahlil Okafor — will just have to settle for this watered-down version of the uber-famous Duke basketball delight, the superhero whom Louisiana residents salivated over after New Orleans lucked into the No. 1 pick last year.
Of course, just as the Duke basketball treasure proved once again against Memphis, even a diluted, heavy Zion is still pretty darn sweet.
Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more news and views regarding Zion Williamson plus all other things Duke basketball.