With Mardi Gras nearly upon us, there’s no better time for New Orleans to celebrate this new age of Pelicans basketball than the present, and at the center of the excitement, of course, stands you know who.
Zion Williamson burst onto the scene with a 17-point explosion against the Spurs on January 22nd and he’s been spectacular in every sense of the word since. For a rookie whose conditioning and rhythm are still closer to preseason mode, it’s been incredibly impressive to see how he’s dismantled opponents that are in midseason form. The highlights, which are going viral minutes after becoming reality, tell no lies.
Zion has flat-out lived up to the hype at the start of his professional career and his numbers sit in full support. He is averaging 19.5 points and 8.2 rebounds — that’s close to a double-double in a tick over 25 minutes of action. His field goal percentage sits north of 60%. And his free throw efficiency is on the rise, having made 11 of his last 15 attempts (73.3%) after beginning a ghastly 6 of 17 (35.3%).
To put it in greater perspective, Zion’s per 36 minute statistics are even more astounding for a rookie as only one player — Shaquille O’Neal — has previously sat in the ballpark of 25 points per game, 10 rebounds a game and a 60% field goal percentage, per Basketball Reference which encompasses NBA data going back to the 1946-47 season.
While we’ve all had to pick up our jaws off the ground after several alley-oop finishes, it’s super important to put what’s transpired thus far into context. After missing 13 1⁄2 weeks, Williamson not only hit the ground running, but he’s seemingly passed every test under the watchful eyes of David Griffin, Aaron Nelson and everyone else with a say in determining his playing status. Just have a look at the increases in Zion’s minutes and number of bursts witnessed in such short order.
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In less than two week’s time, Gentry is practically utilizing Zion just like any of his other starters. That’s a far cry from the groans heard from here to probably Didi’s ears in Australia after Zion registered 18 minutes in his debut against the Spurs. How many can you remember cried out, “I thought there wasn’t supposed to be a minutes restriction?”
If you choose to find fault with the initial terminology in describing Zion’s process of getting back up to speed on the court, fine, but it should be crystal clear to everyone by now that Williamson didn’t endure typical limitations and restrictions. There wasn’t a painstakingly long duration of ‘not too much, too fast.’ He busted through all the hurdles in place like the Kool-Aid man rips through high school gymnasium walls.
In trying to gauge what Zion and the Pelicans medical and training staffs once faced, plus what his 285-pound mass will continue to deal with from this day forward, I reached out to Dr. Guillem Gonzalez-Lomas, an orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Sports Health. Dr. Gonzalez possesses a wealth of experience “in sports medicine and offers people a variety of treatments, including ligament reconstruction, cartilage repair, hip arthroscopy, elbow and knee surgery, and shoulder replacement.”
The first thing one must grasp is exactly what the meniscus tear in Zion’s knee represented and the obstacle that loomed ahead in extensive rehabilitation work.
“For him, obviously, anytime that you have an injury, you are then at a slightly higher risk for future injuries,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “And that’s a combination of the tissue itself — you can never have the tissue heal better than the original tissue that you had — and then there’s some compensation that comes into play. So his trainers are going to have to work really hard to really make sure that everything is nicely balanced and there aren’t any deficiencies.”
As we learned, the Pelicans did find some deficiencies, and Aaron Nelson and his staff have diligently worked on correcting them, thus needing to deviate radically from the initial 6-8 week recovery timeline.
“Those programs need to be hardwired over time,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “It just doesn’t happen overnight. They’re going to be working with him so that — and you hate to look at it this way, but sometimes these injuries do have a silver lining in that they happen in someone young enough and they’re not catastrophic. Sometimes they actually are great motivators for that player to really focus on those injury prevention exercises.”
We’ve become aware of changes made to Zion’s kinetic motion, which have reportedly improved his jumping and running techniques, among other things. We also discovered Zion’s disdain for the process, getting mad enough at times in wanting to punch a wall or kick chairs.
Zion has thankfully moved past that depressing period and now looks as explosive as he did in preseason before the injury struck. Also, there’s plenty of hope that all the knowledge and work poured into his recovery will stick.
“I think when they’re young enough and I think with enough practice, they absolutely pick up the new habits as the new normal,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “But it’s always a work in progress. It’s not like a pill you take and you’re cured. It’s something you’ve got to take your medicine every day. Those programs and that preparation has to be a part of their regular routine.”
This may very well be the key for Zion to enjoy a long and successful career: following a strict regiment religiously each and every day.
As an aside, this is one underrated reason why I think it makes sense to keep Jrue Holiday next to Williamson for as long as possible. There’s few who work harder off the court and during the offseason than the Pelicans longest tenured player. In looking at how his brothers, Anthony Davis, Jahlil Okafor and Frank Jackson gravitated to him last summer, Jrue can function as a perfect mentor, helping guide Zion through much more than just stretching, exercising and ingraining bodily movements.
“I would just say that everything matters,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “Everything that he does: the food that he eats, how much he sleeps, what he does in his time off and of course his training and his preparation. All of that matters. He’s at a point, because of the career that he’s chosen and the unique person that he is, he is going to have to shoulder all of that and optimize all of that to stay healthy. In this day and age of playing professional basketball, it is a grind. There’s a lot of games and they’re playing against elite athletes. So if he wants to stay competitive and avoid injury, he’s going to have to optimize every aspect of his life.”
That’s a lot to ask of a 19-year-old. You remember what life was like for many at that age, right? Staying up late and partying with friends, playing video games until dawn or just opting to binge-watch a particular show — instead of doing your homework, preparing studiously for an upcoming exam or focusing on your job.
Thanks to Stan Lee’s Peter Parker, we know that with great power comes great responsibility. How Zion chooses to define his legacy is entirely dependent on him. However, while we wait and watch to see how it all plays out, it’s high time we thank those who have brought him to this stimulating point.
“These are injuries where you have to take your time,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “You really get one shot of making that work, and if you try to accelerate it and cut corners, you’ll get burned. I’m sure they were having very involved conversations with Zion and with everybody who was involved in taking care of him. It sounds to me like things were done properly.”
Thank you Griff, Aaron and everyone else with a hand in not only making Zion look like pre-injury Zion again but putting him on a good track that allows for our wildest imaginations to remain a possible outcome.