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Williamson injury grabs headlines but Ingram and rest of Pelicans produce hope on media day

New Orleans is hopeful Zion will be ready for the start of the regular season, but if needed, the depth of the roster could be ready to step up

New Orleans Pelicans Media Day Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Minutes into the 2021 New Orleans Pelicans media day event, David Griffin revealed sobering news that nobody wanted to hear: Zion Williamson had broken a bone during the offseason, needing surgery to repair the fifth metatarsal in his right foot.

“We met yesterday as a group, Willie {Green}, myself, Trajan {Langdon}, Aaron Nelson representing the medical team, and Zion and his family,” Griffin announced. “We established a timeline for his return to play. Zion is returning from a foot surgery, suffered earlier in the offseason prior to summer league. He had a fractured right foot that was repaired surgically. His timeline should get him back on the court in time for the regular season.”

Williamson went on to confirm this — “I expect to be back for the first game” — but didn’t hide the fact that he was originally dismayed.

“Initially, when it first happened, it sucked,” Williamson said. “But it’s a part of the game. I think I was overdoing it when I was training because I felt like I had this huge chip on my shoulder, this huge boulder. And I was just getting after it ... overly ... every day, and it just happened. But the process has been great. I’ve been working with the team and the trainer every day so it’s been good.”

Later in his media interview, Zion revealed that some of his summer absences from teammates involved more than just rehabilitation purposes because of the way he’s been raised in his life.

“When my teammates see me, I want them to always see me with my head up high,” Williamson said. “High spirits. And like I said, I was getting after it. Constantly. So when it did happen, when it came for me to spend time and go see my teammates, I was personally down on myself. I didn’t want to be around them and just give off that bad energy, but I was still rehabbing.”

Recent conspiracy theories about Zion wanting out of New Orleans were further quelled by Williamson announcing that he loves the city and doesn’t want to be anywhere else.

If you missed it, Williamson also downplayed rumors surrounding any rifts with David Griffin.

“My relationship with Griff — I don’t think he can play the piano, the last time I checked — but yeah, it’s all love with me and Griff. There ain’t much to dive into. It’s just love between us. We’re both competitors. We both want to win. Do we disagree on some things? Yeah, who agrees on everything? We don’t, but I think that’s what makes our relationship great. We both bring the best out of each other and we’ll keep doing all that.”

The best concrete example of Zion and the organization’s trust in one another right now is how both parties have worked together during this process of returning him to 100% physical health.

“Our doctor, Dr. Montgomery, was part of the surgical process,” Griffin said. “We’ve had Stan Williams, our head strength and conditioning coach, with him throughout the summer. His rehab’s totally been done in lockstep with the organization. We’re really happy with where it’s at.”

Admittedly, it was somewhat comforting to hear the executive vice president of basketball operations and one of the biggest young stars in the game today on the exact same page. However, while Griffin, Williamson and new head coach Willie Green said that they are hopeful Zion will be ready for the start of the regular season, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario that doesn’t pose at least a small threat to the team’s playoff aspirations.

Williamson is currently in the midst of pool and treadmill work, having not started any on-court activity yet. He isn’t expected to appear in any exhibition games next month either. The regular season begins nine days after the last preseason contest.

Furthermore, it must be noted that the New Orleans organization has previously handled Zion with kid gloves. After he had surgery to repair torn meniscus in his right knee, he was slated to miss 6-8 weeks. He didn’t make his rookie debut against the Spurs for a total of 12 weeks. And that was proceeded by the infamous bursts of playing time that no one liked.

One has to believe that even if Zion is in uniform against the Philadelphia 76ers on Oct. 20, there will be some kind of restrictions in place. Others will have to step up. Fortunately, Brandon Ingram and the rest of the roster appear to have been training hard for such a potential outcome.

Tales of Ingram’s leadership could be found in every corner of the Smoothie King Center today. With the help of Griffin and Langdon, Ingram led voluntary workouts in Phoenix that about eight players participated.

“Brandon reached out to us and wanted us to get everyone to him to work out in Phoenix,” Griffin said. “And he did that. He led those workouts. When you see him, you’re going to recognize a different player physically. And that’s because he put in all of the time he possibly could. He’s walking the walk.”

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans-Media Day Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting 20 feet away, Ingram did indeed look larger to me. Stronger. His usual self confidence was present in the room as well, but I sensed a greater assertiveness emanating from him.

“We want to win, ultimately,” Ingram said. “To win, we have to know each other on the offensive and defensive end. Be ready for whatever comes.”

As any leader should, one must lead by example. In Ingram’s case, he’s a wonderfully gifted offensive player. He was awarded an All-Star berth and the Most Improved Player after the 2019-20 campaign despite putting the finishing touches a nearly identical season just months ago. However, his defense and conditioning have been lacking throughout and could have always used improvement. Ingram has started to address those concerns this past summer.

“In my own game, the defensive side of the basketball,” Ingram said in response to an area he seeks to take that proverbial next step. “I just want to have a better presence, hoping that trickles down to everyone on the team. Have that as our identity this year because we know we can score the basketball. It’s important for us to dial it in on defensive end.”

That’s a message which is quickly becoming more and more commonplace with this current group — working their tails off and getting after it especially on defense. Onlookers witnessed the start of the transformation in summer league, and by all accounts, it continued during informal workouts held in Nashville, Tennessee earlier this month.

“I’ve never seen a group of guys put more sweat on the floor than these guys did in Nashville,” Griffin said. “The diving for loose balls. The defensive intensity, et cetera, is different. It is very much a carryover from what you saw from our group in summer league. They were undefeated not because we were outscoring people, but because we were guarding everybody. And every member of our team that was there in Nashville — and it was the vast majority of them — is sharing that ethos and approach to the game.”

So if asked a quick synopsis of today’s media day, one could say it started with a thud regarding the Zion Williamson injury news, but hope sprang from the words that followed.

Willie Green and his coaching staff have continued to make important inroads with the roster both on and off the court since the Vegas exhibition. Ingram is not only attempting to address his weaknesses, but he’s made a concerted effort to fill the leadership void. And then there’s the seemingly better fits around the two cornerstones who have practically guaranteed to give effort on a nightly basis.

Hope is wonderful. It is necessary for a team coming off several losing seasons. I, like many on social media, am strangely excited about the upcoming campaign, but it’s hard to quantify. The vibe is different. The common goal of making the postseason feels understood, yet there’s so much more to it than that. These young minds and bodies exude an eagerness to fight the full 94’ length and 50’ width of the court.

But the truth remains. No matter the promises, the on-paper evaluations, simple gut instincts, the team must find a way to post W’s. Otherwise, it’ll turn into empty talk, only serving to invite negativity through the front door once again.

“There’s going to be negativity around us until we win,” Griffin said. “And I would say about the time we start to be more successful, you’re going to be able to hear about some ridiculous story about how close we are and how we sing kumbaya. And when we lose, there’s going to be way more stories about how ridiculous I am and how our relationship doesn’t work.”

Who in New Orleans probably wouldn’t prefer a folk song yodeled by locals to a bonfire started by outsiders?

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.