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Zion Williamson: What’s really on his mind?

He’s certainly been a hot topic all week. Let’s break it down!

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

Earlier in the week, I sat down at least a dozen times to put fingers to keyboard on the enigma that is Zion Williamson, but the words never felt right. It was difficult to analyze everything that had transpired so swiftly, let alone play the blame game, without ascertaining more facts.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine.

Once the initial shock to this Ukrainian’s system had ebbed slightly, some much needed clarity presented itself during yesterday’s Pelicans post-practice media session.

But first, let’s describe how we got here. The third-year pro out of Duke continues to have trouble escaping the wrong publicity.

Before the start of All-Star Saturday on TNT, CJ McCollum joined Ernie, Charles, Kenny and Shaq for an interview, revealing that he’s had no direct contact with Williamson since arriving via a trade from Portland.

This specific issue is now resolved, as Malika Andrews reported Tuesday on NBA Today that Williamson had since reached out to McCollum and the two players spoke directly.

However, prior to this news, there were other reasons contributing to the fireworks across social media. In addition to the McCollum hiccup, the Pelicans issued a season tickets renewal to existing holders via email with nary a mention of Zion.

Learning in hindsight that the aim of the New Orleans franchise was to highlight the hopeful play witnessed this season under new head coach Willie Green (and 23 games remain in 2021-22) is understandable. No one can accurately predict when Williamson might return. However, it should have been realized that any talk about tickets for the next campaign without such a large draw would ultimately grab all the attention — especially with Zion’s name already circulating negatively.

The biggest bomb, though, was dropped by JJ Redick, who appeared across several ESPN platforms.

On Tuesday’s edition of First Take, the recently retired 15-year veteran gave full-fledged support to the theory of Zion’s aloofness to Stephen A. Smith.

“This is definitely something. Actually, this is a little bit insane to me. There’s a general sort of decorum of behavior that you should apply as a teammate. Look, I wasn’t the best player on any team I was on, but if there was a buy-out possibility, if there was a trade possibility, I would always reach out.

“This just shows a complete lack of investment in your team, in the organization, in the city. I get that he’s hurt and away from the team, but you just traded for one of the 50 best players in the league — a guy that’s supposed to be paired with you. Reach out and say hello. This is a pattern of behavior with Zion that we are seeing again and again.

“Look, I was his teammate. I can describe a detached teammate. That is an accurate statement. This is a basic level of humanity on being a teammate. Send a text to a guy when he gets traded to your team. That is just normal behavior. That’s the bar minimum you have to do. And the Pelicans yesterday sent out an email for season tickets for next year. Guess who’s name wasn’t in the email? Zion’s!”

Then later in the same day on This Just In, Redick clarified some of his earlier thoughts, sounding as though he wasn’t calling Zion out as much as trying to call him up.

“The point I want to get across is how abnormal it is for a player to not text or reach out to in an incoming player, and not just because it was CJ McCollum, who is a great player, you do that for anyone.

“This is the point I really want to hammer home here: when you’re a professional athlete that is playing a team sport, you have to be fully invested. You have to be fully invested in your body, your work, and most importantly, your teammates. That’s part of the job description.

After these remarks, Redick’s message changed.

“I’m rooting for Zion. We all are. I want him to be great. I want him to be healthy. I want him to be able to showcase his unique skillset. And I want him to be on a winning team.”

To further illustrate his support, Redick voiced a resurgence similar to Joel Embiid could be on the horizon for Zion after Max Kellerman pointed out how Moses Malone was responsible for Charles Barkley elevating his game after placing a greater focus on his professionalism.

“I think the Joel comparison is a really good one. It’s a really good one. When I was watching Sunday night, when they announced the starters, Joel Embiid: fifth straight All-Star game start. Think about the rearview now; how long ago it seems that there were all these injury concerns and now he’s just been a complete dominant force for five seasons. Zion can get to that, but like I said, you have to be fully invested in all those areas — and body starts. That’s where it starts, it starts with the body.”

Williamson lasted nine first-half minutes in his summer league debut, not taking the court again in Las Vegas after a knee-to-knee collision.

A few months later, Williamson failed to get through New Orleans preseason schedule, succumbing to an injury that required meniscus surgery. He was slated to miss 6-8 weeks but wound up missing 3.5 months. He was also initially subjected to strict, short-minute bursts of action.

During the pandemic shutdown, Williamson, like everyone else, was left to his own devices to prepare for a return to action inside the bubble. Optimism was never higher following the picture of a toned Zion that went viral.

However, Zion suffered an undisclosed hamstring injury and spent time away from the team for an “urgent family medical matter.” Upon returning to action, a lack of memorable performances appeared to have a domino effect.

The Pelicans posted a 2-6 record in the bubble, Alvin Gentry was soon fired thereafter and Jrue Holiday was later traded before the start of the following season.

While Williamson was largely healthy during his second campaign, appearing in 61 of a possible 72 games, he is yet to make an appearance this season thanks to breaking the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. Following several setbacks, he remains limited to rehab work approximately seven months later and it’s unclear whether that bone has fully healed.

Christian Clark of Nola.com highlighted the frustration in an article yesterday.

From a Pelicans perspective, there is frustration that Williamson’s recovery from injury has taken longer than anticipated in two of his three seasons because he is not fully committed to the team’s rehabilitation plan.

Williamson frequently showed up late to rehab work during his rookie season. His unique body type makes it imperative for him to diet and train rigorously, which he has failed to do since being drafted by the organization. He showed up to training camp in September well above 300 pounds, sources said. Ideally, one team source said, Williamson would play games at 265 pounds.

Williamson and his camp have overly tried to control matters on their own after believing Zion’s return from injury was handled poorly during his rookie season, but it’s more than fair to question their choice. Zion’s placed trust in his own personal group of doctors and trainers; however, it hasn’t reduced his propensity for injury or kept him out of the negative limelight.

It’s not hard to surmise that overhauling Williamson’s operating procedures could benefit all parties involved. The young star unknowingly said it best in last May’s season-ending presser.

“Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is kind of insane, so I’m not going to sit here and say we’re close ... But we’ve just got to come in and be better. That’s just me being real.”

What’s interesting is that this quote in full was atypical of Williamson as he failed to echo similar reactions throughout the 2020-21 season. He seemingly always towed the company line in postgame interviews, talking about the Pelicans being close to taking that next step until injuries decimated the roster over the final few weeks of the schedule.

Why did his stance change abruptly when there had been ample opportunity to voice any frustrations at any point earlier? It was definitely warranted, but regardless, it showed to be noticeable departure as though he received new input.

If you have the time to listen to that linked season-ending presser and then his comments on media day in September, can you spot a common denominator?

  • “But before I make any decisions, I’m going to sit down with my family and discuss what’s best for me.”
  • “Me and Coach Fred, and me and my step father, we put in a lot of work on those.”
  • “You know, my step father taught me different.”
  • “It’s the way I was raised.”
  • “My parents taught me well about the game.”
  • “I just keep within my circle and as long as people in my circle know how I’m feeling, I’m fine.”

Six references to his family in two interviews, but it’s not surprising. Zion and his family have always proven to be awfully close, starting with his introductory press conference where Lee Anderson went to the microphone and stated the Williamson family was ecstatic about landing in New Orleans.

This tight relationship shouldn’t be frowned upon. Family is important for all walks of life, especially young phenoms. Having normalcy at home to escape millions of followers and pressures of carrying a professional franchise has to be a fantastic stress reliever for those who prefer a private, laid-back atmosphere.

But in wanting to retreat to friendlier confines too often can be hazardous as well. A balance must be struck, ensuring all duties and responsibilities get fulfilled. Give it some more time. This can’t be an easy bar to hit when all sorts of adversity strike the first three years of a career that’s under a microscope.

Zion missed the vast majority of games in years 1 and 3, and the second season under Stan Van Gundy didn’t sound like much fun for him and his family.

Among the targets of their criticism was Van Gundy, who they felt was too rigid and demanding as head coach, but also with the organization, which they claim did not live up to what they felt should be the standard for a star like Williamson.

It’s human tendency for a player who hasn’t ingrained all the ins and outs of being a professional to become detached when expectations aren’t met and joy is absent. This has to be particularly true for someone who was riding a historic wave before reaching the NBA.

Yes, Zion endured injury in high school and college, but media never dismantled him so publicly for it. This is new ground. The first few chapters of his career haven’t gone accordingly and suddenly the pages got stuck together — he hasn’t hooped in a real game setting for seven months!

“Somethings need to stay private, but I will say this: What Z is going through is extremely difficult,” Willie Green said after yesterday’s practice. “As a player and person, I’ve went through injuries. No excuses made on my part, but it’s difficult. You’re weighing a lot at those moments. You’re weighing when you’re going to continue to play? A lot goes through your head. For us here, for me, is having compassion and having an understanding of what he has to go through to get healthy.”

In more usual settings, think of Zion’s personality. He’s as bubbly and cheery of a fellow as you’ll find in the league. There’s countless of times I’ve witnessed him laughing with T-Spoon or hamming it up with teammates. We all love to have fun, but I swear Zion needs it to sustain Zion, like the Earth’s yellow sun does for Superman in the movies.

Call me naive, but I think his radiant smile tells no lies. He was absolutely beaming to kick off his media day with media. There were also moments of bashfulness. Williamson often feels like the most innocent guy in the room. Having been around him enough to study plenty of his interactions, Zion feels like a genuine soul, not some actor trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes as he quickly buys a ticket for New York City.

Case in point, his response to Fletcher Mackel on media day didn’t feel scripted. “Per me” which is immediately followed by that laugh? No way. The same goes for his response to Brett Martel about why he spent so much time away from the rest of the team this past offseason (starting at the 4:11 mark here).

“Honestly, I don’t know if this is a good answer, or not, or excuse or whatever, I guess it’s just the way I was raised. When my teammates see me, I want them to always see me with my head up high. 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.”

“I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time with the guys,” Williamson added later on media day. “But one thing about my teammates, they’re great guys, good dudes. They know who I am and they know what I’m about. They know I’m their bro and I want to be a part of it so I don’t think they thought I was excluding myself. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time with them because I was steadily rehabbing.”

Yeah, I buy it. All of it. Even after how this week unfolded.

There’s no doubt Zion’s professionalism needs to climb a couple of notches on the ladder. Adding another trusted adviser or two into his circle would probably pay big dividends. And greater common ground needs to be found between his group and the Pelicans. But at the end of the day, let’s cut a good kid some slack because a 21-year-old with all the pressures in the world isn’t done growing up.

“Leave the young fella alone, man,” CJ McCollum said after yesterday’s practice. “He’s trying to rehab in peace, right, and get himself ready to get back. We spoke, and I’ll speak to him next week to catch up with him. He’s a very talented player and he’s going through a lot. And you guys have put him on the spot on the daily.

“I think he’s just trying to recover on his own time and really focus on his rehab. I’ve been injured before so I know what it’s like — you feel disconnected, you feel away, you wish you could be out there. Mentally and physically, it’s tough on the body. Then you’ve got to read about yourself all the time. I know it’s frustrating.”

It’s easy for anger to bubble to the surface. The Pelicans are headed for another sub .500 finish. Zion’s missed 118 out of 203 possible games thus far in his career. Fans haven’t seen him on the court for close to 10 months and national media is talking about how he may never play another game in New Orleans again.

However, if anyone tells you that they’re convinced they know how how all of this is all going to play out, they’re lying to you. So don’t listen. It’s only important to remember that his teammates have not turned their backs on their brother.

“We’re going to get along very well and continue to build our relationship,” CJ McCollum said. “I’ll be here for him when he needs me.”

The recent show of unity bodes well for a happier ending than most believed possible just days ago. Add to it that Williamson appears to really be struggling on the mental side of things in overcoming an injury that’s eaten up more than half the calendar year, Zion needed to try something different to clear his mind while accelerating a healthy return.

That makes more sense than needing to go more than 2,500 miles in order to devise a devious escape plan from New Orleans. Or did his trade request get lost in the mail for pandemic reasons?

“No, no I don’t,” Redick said on whether he thinks Zion’s last game in New Orleans has already taken place. “And I’m even more optimistic of that. He’ll play again for the Pelicans.”

Hey, I am too.

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.