Zion Williamson's Contract Negotiations 'Will Be a Challenge,' Says Pelicans' Griffin

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured Columnist IVMay 16, 2022

NEW ORLEANS, LA - APRIL 28: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans smiles before Round 1 Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs on April 28, 2022 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

When Zion Williamson has been healthy, he's looked like one of the most exciting young superstars in the NBA. The issue, of course, has been that he's only been on the court for 85 total games in his first three seasons, which included missing the entirety of the 2021-22 campaign because of a fractured right foot. 

So as he heads into his fourth season, soon to be extension-eligible, there are questions about what financial commitment the Pelicans will be willing to make for the oft-injured Williamson and whether he'll be willing to commit his future to New Orleans. 

"Obviously, that conversation is going to be one that will be a challenge," executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin told reporters. "When it's time to have that, we'll have it. And right now what we're focused on is him being healthy, and [being in] kind of elite condition to play basketball, and we'll start there."

The other issue for the Pelicans is that Williamson and the team have never appeared to be on the same page when it comes to his injury rehabilitation and timeline for return, with reports over the summer that there was a rift between the two parties. 

If there is a rift, however, it's one the Pelicans would assuredly want to work past. After all, Williamson is averaging 25.7 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, shooting 60.4 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three. 

There's little doubt that he has superstar potential and is the sort of player to build around, injuries or not. 

And there is precedent for giving a potential superstar who struggled with injuries early in his career a max contract. The Philadelphia 76ers did it in 2017, signing Joel Embiid to a five-year, $146.5 million deal that protected the franchise if he didn't hit certain games-played benchmarks. At the time of the contract, Embiid had missed his first two seasons and only played 31 games.

The Sixers most certainly don't have buyer's remorse on that contract, as Embiid has gone on to be the MVP runner-up two seasons in a row. 

And the Pelicans have built a solid roster, making the playoffs this past season behind the play of Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and a young supporting cast. That Pelicans team gave the Phoenix Suns fits in the first round before bowing out in six games. 

Returning Williamson to the mix would make New Orleans a real threat in the Western Conference. And at least publicly, he's said he wants to be back.

"I can't control rumors and how people feel about certain things. ... Anybody who knows me, knows I want to be here," he told reporters in early May. "If they feel otherwise, I can't help that. But if you know me, you know I want to be here."

The extension talks to keep him in New Orleans, however, may prove to be complicated.