As news of Zion Williamson's latest injury setback trickled out of New Orleans last week, league personnel once again began to speculate on the looming 2022 extension talks between the New Orleans Pelicans and their 2019 No. 1 draft choice.
This is not to say Williamson already has one foot out the door. No top pick in league history has chosen the qualifying offer with a one-year path to unrestricted free agency, versus a maximum contract extension projected to eclipse $200 million over five years. Yet this is how the modern NBA world turns. Front offices are as forthright as ever about scheming to land an alpha like Williamson from a downtrodden rival, and player movement has become equally as fluid.
It's hard not to see the early parallels between Williamson's status in New Orleans and that of Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, where there were once nearly identical rumors about the 2016 top pick potentially taking his own qualifying offer to reach the open market. Simmons eventually accepted Philadelphia's contract and $177 million that same summer New Orleans selected Williamson, but that has meant nothing throughout this ongoing trade-demand saga.
Until Williamson puts pen to paper in July, rival front offices will hope and prepare for the possibility of a Zion free-agency frenzy come 2024. And even if Williamson does re-sign, teams will keep a radar trained onto New Orleans in hopes he seeks a trade like Simmons, just as Chris Paul and Anthony Davis did in NOLA before him.
This is the ever-important backdrop behind last Thursday's news that Williamson won't appear in New Orleans' season opener Wednesday against Philadelphia, as part of a two-week-plus setback in his return from offseason foot surgery. There's a strong belief in league circles that the Pelicans were unaware of that procedure until Williamson reported to New Orleans ahead of media day, although one team source contacted by B/R maintained the Pelicans and Williamson were aligned on the injury's timeline.
Before Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin addressed reporters last Thursday, word was already circling around the league that Williamson was unlikely to make his 2021-22 debut before November, at the earliest. It was even known in rival front offices that Griffin planned to speak on the matter rather than issue a press release. This all comes after league figures raised a collective eyebrow when Griffin blamed Williamson's season-ending finger injury on poor officiating.
There's an expectation that Williamson will resume play under a minutes restriction when he does take the floor, sources said, typical for stars returning from injury. But with Williamson, who bristled at the training wheels Pelicans officials placed on his reintegration from a torn meniscus injury as a rookie, it could be a higher-stakes game of poker.
It all seems fair to wonder what kind of urgency New Orleans and Williamson will feel around his return. The Pelicans harbor plans for a playoff push, something Williamson himself strongly noted in early October, while the Williamson camp has at times held a tenuous relationship with Griffin, from the aforementioned 2019 reintegration plan to the fraught hiring of Stan Van Gundy.
This now marks the second time in three seasons Williamson will miss the Pelicans' opening stretch because of injury. He's been hampered with knee and foot maladies dating back to his time as a Blue Devil.
And for all of his apparent gripes about New Orleans' abundance of caution with his health, the combination of Williamson's injury history and his fluctuating weight throughout his early career would concern any front office, especially a small-market nucleus so invested in his long-term availability to the franchise. The risk of reinjury is always too real and far too treacherous.
"I do think there is another gear that I can reach regarding my weight and conditioning," Williamson told The Old Man & the Three podcast in March. "But I think it's like you said, it's finding it. Because I don't want to get to a spot where I'm like, ‘Yeah I lost a lot of weight, but I don't feel strong. I can't do certain things I would do before.' I think it's just finding it. I do think there is another gear I can reach regarding both weight and conditioning."
He's since reached north of 300 pounds this offseason, sources said, again fueling concerns among New Orleans staffers similar to the months leading up to his rookie debut. When he joined the Pelicans' recent preseason trip to Minnesota, several league personnel on hand were struck by his heavier appearance than his listed playing weight last season of 284 pounds. "I know Zion at 280, and he was not 280," said one observer.
"These are the injuries you have to be the most concerned about, a foot injury for a guy with noted weight issues," said one Western Conference executive.
While Williamson did board that flight to Minneapolis, he did not attend preseason road trips to Chicago or Utah, sources said. This after a summer in which Williamson backed out of plans to accompany general manager Trajan Langdon and fellow All-Star Brandon Ingram in Phoenix to attend a Suns playoff game.
Although, according to one team source, Williamson skipped those Chicago and Utah trips to stay back in New Orleans with the team's medical staff and instead focus on his rehab with a strength coach.
All this has occurred before a regular-season game has even tipped. When it comes to harmony within NBA teams, context is everything. Winning has proved time and again to be the magical elixir that can squash or excuse any sign of strife within a franchise. And again, no player has ever turned down such a lucrative rookie extension that Williamson will surely qualify for and New Orleans will surely offer. On media day, Williamson did say it was "all love" between him and Griffin.
If Williamson can return at full force and lead New Orleans into the playoffs, the Pelicans could build momentum toward the future, just as the No. 2 pick from his class, Ja Morant, has done in Memphis. The electric point guard seems all but destined to re-sign with the Grizzlies next summer. League observers far and wide are still wondering whether Williamson will do the same.
Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.