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It’s somewhat of a running joke that injured athletes magically improve while the sidelines. While they don’t actually get better, absence makes the heart grow fonder; if a team is struggling, it’s easy to look at the one missing piece and assume he’s the perfect answer to the issues at hand.

Zion Williamson is no longer benefiting from that sentiment, though. Recently, the injured New Orleans Pelicans star has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Stan Van Gundy, however, is coming to the big man’s defense.

Van Gundy, of course, coached Zion in the Big Easy and knows a thing or two about how he operates. Based on that perspective, he feels bad for Williamson. That should resonate with everyone, whether you’re a Pelicans fan or not.

Zion Williamson is under fire as a detached teammate

On paper, Zion has the talent to be one of the best players in the entire Association. Injuries have prevented him from reaching that potential, though, and, according to JJ Redick, Williamson has also been lacking in the behavioral department.

“This is something I addressed with Zion in front of the team,” Redick said in response to the story that Williamson failed to contact CJ McCollum when he joined the Pelicans. “This is going back to his rookie year, … a pattern of behavior with Zion that we are seeing again and again. I was his teammate; I can describe him as a detached teammate, that is an accurate statement.”

The former sharpshooter wasn’t done there, though.

“There’s a responsibility that you have as an athlete when you play a team sport to be fully invested,” he continued. “You’re fully invested in your body, you’re fully invested in your work, and you’re fully invested in your teammates. That is your responsibility, and we have not seen that from Zion.”

Stan Van Gundy offers a sympathetic perspective of the young star

Stan Van Gundy and Zion Williamson during a New Orleans Pelicans game.
Stan Van Gundy and Zion Williamson during their time with the New Orleans Pelicans. | Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Between those Redick comments and other rumors swirling about a mutual dissatisfaction with New Orleans, it hasn’t been the best stretch for Zion Williamson. His former coach, however, stepped in to offer a different perspective.

During a recent appearance on The Dan LeBatard Show, Stan Van Gundy shared his view of things in the Big Easy. In addition to sharing that Redick “really likes Zion,” the former Pelicans coach also came to the injured star’s defense.

“Zion at times can certainly be detached. When he’s playing, I didn’t think he was detached at all last year,” SVG explained. “But when he’s not playing — off-season, breaks, injured, whatever — I think he just wants to be by himself. I think he doesn’t like not playing, he wants to be by himself and get ready, [and] that’s a big part of it. And at that point, all he wants to do is get back and play to re-attach. So I don’t know that he’s always detached, but I think when he’s not playing, he is.”

Then came the kicker.

“I feel bad for him quite honestly, I think he’s come under a lot of criticism about his inability to stay healthy and play and things like that,” Van Gundy continued. “And now about being attached and detached. He’s caught a lot of flack.”

Zion Williamson is a human being, but that doesn’t absolve him of all responsibility


Zion Williamson Situation Means We Need to Talk About the Rookie Contract Problem

Given their celebrity status and bank accounts, no one is going to shed a tear for professional athletes. Some criticism, logic dictates, is the trade-off for fame and fortune. Van Gundy’s comments about Zion Williamson, however, are a reminder of the other side of the coin.

Let’s look at some of the beats from the big man’s career. He received flack for seeming less than enthused when he officially joined the Pelicans. Could he have been a better actor and put on a happy face for the cameras? Of course. But, on a human level, it’s easy to understand why a competitor wouldn’t be thrilled to join a floundering franchise.

Jumping forward to the present, a charitable explanation of Zion’s behavior could exist. As SVG said, Williamson entered the league with the weight of expectation on his shoulders. Since then, he’s struggled through injuries and barely seen the court. As more and more rumors swirl about his future, it’s reasonable to imagine him being a bit disgruntled, detached, or whatever adjective you’d prefer.

It’s also possible, given the way Van Gundy described Williamson, that the big man is simply an introvert. When he’s not playing basketball, his default might be to withdraw and only engage with a limited circle.

That, however, doesn’t absolve him of responsibility. As a star player and, more importantly for the Pelicans, a member of the team, Williamson does have some obligations to uphold. He could be more communicative, both with the public and the organization at large and cut less of an isolated figure. Even if that’s just window dressing, it would help combat the “he doesn’t even want to be here” narrative.

And, at the same time, fans need to remember that he’s a human being. Pro athletes aren’t robots performing for our amusement; they’re human beings who are allowed to be upset, detached, or any other emotion. It’s also important for fans to treat those feelings as valid and not immediately assume they’re a ploy, as some have done with Ben Simmons.

All of that isn’t to say that we have to treat athletes with kid gloves; they’re working in the public eye, and criticism of their performances are simply part of the job. There is room, though, for both sides to work together a bit more. Players (in this case Zion) can be a bit more open and communicative, and fans can be more understanding that the guys on the court are allowed to feel something other than fired up.