The NBA undoubtedly considered countless variables in navigating the safest, most realistic path to resuming its season. There were a myriad of protocols to consider and consciences to explore amid a pandemic and a burgeoning fight for racial equality.
One conversation, though, was likely relatively brief.
How many of the 30 teams should be invited inside the bubble?
Answer: Whatever number includes Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans.
The NBA and its television partners sought to broadcast Williamson early and often throughout his rookie campaign. A preseason right knee injury derailed those plans—along with a rash of injuries to other key players—and dashed the early hopes of the Pelicans' season. New Orleans limped to a 7-23 start.
But by the time we last left the NBA, Williamson had returned to play 19 games—one for each of his then-19 years—crafting nightly highlight-worthy plays and dazzling imaginations. As the season was about to hit its stretch run, Williamson had nudged New Orleans toward fringe playoff contention by averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds while developing a quick synergy with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday.
"The addition of him made us more aggressive, more dynamic," his teammate, Josh Hart, said. "I think if we had him at the beginning of the year, the story wouldn't be [us] fighting for the eighth seed; it would've been we're a four or five seed in the West, honestly. … Unfortunately, we weren't able to have him in the beginning of the year, but he's helped turn this organization and this season around."
The NBA season is set to resume at the end of this month in Florida with—surprise, surprise—New Orleans as one of the 22 participating organizations. Whether Williamson will be there, though, has come into question after he left the bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort last week to attend to an urgent family medical situation. The exit puts his availability for the restart in limbo. The organization said Williamson will rejoin the team at a future, unspecified date, when he will have to quarantine again for a period determined by the length of his absence and subsequent COVID-19 testing results. As sobering as the news was, getting Williamson back, no matter when, offers the promise to continue the ascent the Pelicans appeared to be on when the season was stopped.
"More so than our depth, our starters and Zion and those guys, they were beginning to build a chemistry and their roles were so well-defined, by themselves really, that we were playing really good basketball," coach Alvin Gentry said of the team's momentum before the season's suspension. "We had guys coming in off the bench, and they knew they may play five minutes, they may play three minutes, they may play 10 minutes. Our guys had come to the understanding that winning is the No. 1 [goal], and all the other things would have to be put on the back burner. I thought that we were headed in that direction and playing good basketball."
The Pelicans, who went 10-9 in Williamson's 19 games, will need to hit the ground running if they hope to climb into the playoffs (or at least into the Western Conference's play-in tournament) in the eight regular-season games they'll start with in the bubble. And that won't be easy with Williamson's availability uncertain.
"As much as it hurts to say, we've done it before," Holiday told reporters on Thursday. "But with him gone and taking care of his family, we’re holding down the fort for him. He's our brother and he needs to take care of his family, take care of his business, but this is nothing new. … It’s just another obstacle that we have to get through as a team."
New Orleans enters the NBA restart 3.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and faces a difficult matchup with Utah on July 30 to open its schedule. "I think this team can be really special when we're all healthy," Williamson said. "It's just a matter of us coming together, fighting those mental battles of being in the bubble. Honestly ... if we can come together and fight the battles together, I think we can be something really special."
30 teams, 30 days: The biggest story from each NBA team ahead of the league's return.
Early in the pandemic, Williamson demonstrated the thoughtfulness of someone beyond his years by fronting the salaries of all Smoothie King Center employees for 30 days. As for himself, he said he has managed daily court work with his stepfather, Lee Anderson, throughout the hiatus. "It just felt like I was five years old again," Williamson said. "Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at five again. It was a great process to learn it all over."
A recent photo tweeted by the franchise depicting a toned Williamson suggests he took his workouts seriously.
Assuming he returns, Williamson's basketball health will be at the forefront of the organization's preparation as the season resumes.
"We're not going to go down and play guys 40 minutes—that doesn't make sense, I don't think," Gentry said. "We'll have to gauge. Obviously, we have a tremendous medical staff. We've already communicated with them, and we'll talk to the players. We'll try to do what's right in terms of being competitive, giving us an opportunity to win, but obviously not risking anything in terms of long-term future with players that are going to be an integral part of our franchise."
In late June, David Griffin, New Orleans' executive vice president of basketball operations, disclosed that three Pelicans tested positive for the coronavirus, underscoring the difficulty every team faces in getting through the restarted season with a fully healthy roster. Still, Griffin said he is more concerned over the risk of lasting injuries to his roster as they look to quickly ramp up.
"I trust our medical staff to lead us in a direction to go in terms of keeping my body healthy," Williamson said. "Just trying to ramp up, that's the mental battle. ... We need to stick together, keep our [spirits] high, and I think we'll be fine."
It's been a whirlwind year for Williamson, from being the top overall pick, to undergoing surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee and working through a season paused for more than four months. "The last 12 months have been a different experience," he said. "With the injury, with all the stuff going on, not playing basketball as much as I'm used to. It's been a crazy experience. … My mom tells me 'life is life.' You may go through a lot of good times, you may go through a lot of bad times, you just have to try to prepare yourself as best as you can, and for me, that's just sticking with my family."
Williamson recently celebrated his 20th birthday. "But it's weird [to not be a teenager anymore], but in a weird way I haven't felt like a teenager in a long time, so I feel like it's not going to be anything different," he said.
He certainly hasn't played like one in his so-far abbreviated NBA career. Now, he'll try to do so again in another truncated set of games.
"He looks good," Hart said of Williamson's work in practice before he left. "His shot looks better than it has been in a while, so he's been putting the work in, and that's great to see. He's one of the players that's got one of the brightest spotlights in the league and in the world right now. He handles everything great, [with] humility, and I'm very surprised and proud of how he handles all of it."
Like the rest of the NBA, Williamson is also considering how to use his voice to amplify the work done throughout the protests in combating systemic racism and police brutality.
"I'm just going to continue to educate myself on that situation, talk with my parents, talk with wise people, any info I can get from people," Williamson said. "I'm just going to continue to learn about it and consult my parents on the best way to use my platform."
If he handles that decision as well as he has everything else thrown his way this season, it will be the latest in a long list of reasons the NBA wants Zion on your living room TVs as much as possible.
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the bestselling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter, @jpdabrams.
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