Is Zion Williamson's Body Built to Break? Pelicans, NBA Better Hope Not

Preston EllisContributor IOctober 22, 2019

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) waits for play to resume in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz in New Orleans, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman)
Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

Finding Greg Oden's name trending on Twitter on October 21 isn't what the NBA had in mind just one day before Zion Williamson's expected regular-season debut against the defending champions.

But that's where the NBA finds itself after the New Orleans Pelicans revealed the No. 1 overall pick underwent surgery to remove debris from a torn meniscus.

"The term 'debridement' suggests Williamson was able to undergo a meniscectomy in which the damaged tissue was removed," Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com told me.

Pelicans officials identified the injury with a timetable of six to eight weeks of unavoidable recovery time, putting Zion's return sometime between the opening week of December and Christmas.

"The estimated timeline is exactly that, an estimate," Stotts said. "It seems likely Zion's recovery will be fluid, meaning he will be assessed as he progresses through rehab and treatment. The Pelicans medical staff will likely take a conservative approach and won't rush a return."

Labeling Zion as a "generational athlete" vastly undersells his true value both to the Pelicans and the league. The 19-year-old is an icon.

Before playing in a single game, he's become the most followed rookie on social media in NBA history, with 4.9 million followers between Twitter, Facebook and Instagram according to Opendorse. Las Vegas Summer League saw the Pelicans' opener against the New York Knicks sell at ticket prices 193 percent higher than 2018, per TickPick. New Orleans' home games have increased in price by 72 percent and its road games by 108 percent.

"We were taking the opportunity to put New Orleans there to get Zion's first game, and the Pelicans and their whole new team, on in Toronto," Thomas Carelli, vice president of broadcasting at the NBA, told The Athletic.

The NBA has invested heavily in Zion and the Pelicans. Exhibited by their appearances in 30 nationally televised games—including the regular-season opener and a Christmas Day matchup against the Nuggets—the league has made its intention clear: Zion will be the new face of the NBA.

From Nike to Gatorade, Panini and NBA2K, brands and companies are falling in line to sign or partner with the man former presidents sit courtside to see.

But with investment comes risk, and Zion is no exception.

The 6'6", 285-pound freight train displays unparalleled power, speed and finesse in his game.

Will his combination of size and athleticism break down his body?

"It's important for his long-term health that he fully recovers from surgery and any underlying or inherent factors that may have led to the injury are addressed," Stotts continued.

Weight could be an inherent factor in this injury, and it's something Aaron Nelson (vice president of player care and performance) and the Pelicans training staff will need to investigate and assess immediately. Zion's listed weight of 285 pounds makes him the second-heaviest player in the NBA, only lighter than Boban Marjanovic.

"The notion that this happened because Zion is in poor condition is asinine," Griffin told ESPN. "He wasn't in poor condition when he went 12-of-13 last week against Utah. That's not what it is. He's just a very unique body type and certainly from a physics perspective."

They had better be sure.

The Pelicans have navigated these waters before with damning results. In NBC Sports' Tom Haberstroh's piece, "How the Pelicans Failed Anthony Davis," Haberstroh describes how the Pelicans medical staff categorically floundered their responsibility during his seven seasons.

"Last season [2017-18], the Pelicans suffered the most player games lost due to injury, costing the team nearly $30 million in lost salary. The season before that, they ranked third-last in games lost due to injury. The season before that, they ranked dead-last again. Over the last five seasons, the Pelicans have lost the second-most games due to injury or illness. Only the Sixers have fared worse over the last five seasons, which has been well-chronicled."

The Pelicans took a step to improve their player care with the addition of Nelson in May, but the team's medical staff—headed by Misty Suri, team physician and director of medical services—remains the same.

You may recognize Suri's name. Suri and fellow orthopedist Deryk Jones were fired by the New Orleans Saints in 2017 after misdiagnosing cornerback Delvin Breaux's fibula fracture as a contusion.

Breaux would not play again in the NFL.

A meniscus tear is not a career-ending injury by any means. Blake Griffin has played seven seasons since the injury knocked him out of the 2012 Olympics and enjoyed his most productive season ever last year. 

"It's a short-term setback that will likely elevate his level of injury risk moving forward," Stotts said. "However, it doesn't mean he can't have a long and productive career. It means he will likely need to focus on routine maintenance moving forward and be more aware of how he trains his lower extremities."

"Less weight, less torque is a theory," Griffin said. "But you look at a player like Blake Griffin who generated enormous torque and had the issues he had in his career. It took a while for him to find stasis in his body and we think that could be the same with Zion."

Future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade enjoyed one of the most exceptional careers for a shooting guard in the league's history but lamented having the surgery as a collegiate athlete in 2002. 

"When [Russell] Westbrook had his injury, they kind of saved his meniscus," Wade told ESPN's Brian Windhorst in 2013. "Mine was taken out, and that opens you up to having certain knee injuries and problems."

The difference between repair and removal is a staunch one. While extraction is a short-term fix, it can have long-term ramifications such as osteoarthritis. A repair necessitates a more extended recovery period with more promising results.

"While Wade may regret his procedure, sometimes a removal is the only option," Stotts said. To undergo a true repair, the damage has to have occurred to a specific area of the menisci."

Wade's 16-year career proves a superstar athlete can keep his/her athleticism and still carve out a Hall of Fame career.

Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

The Oden comparison is a crude one. Zion's injury history is limited to a Grade 1 right knee strain in his lone season at Duke and a knee-to-knee collision during summer league. After the former, Zion returned to the court three weeks later and looked as good as ever. Zion experienced minor knee, foot and hand injuries in high school but nothing ever considered to be serious. 

Managing Zion's body is a unique challenge. As Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin said, "He's a population of one."

"In this case, he gains muscle mass so fast and gains weight so fast, no one has ever dealt with anybody like him," Griffin told ESPN. "He's 19 and it's going to be a learning experience for all of us."

LeBron James has a similar body type, and he's been remarkably healthy in his 17-year NBA career. That might offer Zion and the Pelicans hope, but LeBron was 45 pounds lighter coming out of high school. 

The Pelicans—much to the dismay of the NBA—have to protect their investment at all costs. Six to eight weeks of a season will be forgotten six months from now, much less a year from now, if Zion can return to his historic preseason form.

For Zion's sake, and for their own, they must get this recovery right.   


Former Hawks GM turned NBA TV and Radio Analyst, Wes Wilcox, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss the Portland Trail Blazers as a legit contender, the Clippers as the best roster construction in the league, his picks for the play-offs, and why LeBron is still the best player in the NBA.

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