Zion Williamson is just months into his NBA career. Despite a four-month break behind him, the Pelicans are cautious with their coveted rookie. Sometimes, this means Williamson has to watch the game from the sideline at a time when a potential star wants to shine. However, the Pelicans may have taken this a step too far during their first game back in the season.
The Zion Williamson hype train
Williamson has a hype train behind him unlike any rookie since LeBron James. Touted as the next big thing in basketball, Williamson burst onto the national scene when he was still in high school. The only thing keeping Williamson from jumping from high school like James was the league’s age requirement. Still, after a year at Duke, Williamson was finally allowed to fulfill his destiny.
Williamson was the consensus No. 1 pick of the 2019 NBA Draft years before it happened. His freakish size, combined with his skill and athleticism made him a once-in-a-lifetime player who nobody would pass on. Eventually, the tanking started, the season ended, and the Pelicans were on board with the number one pick. Everyone knew the answer.
The Williamson conundrum
When Williamson went to New Orleans, although the team was in the process of trading former superstar Anthony Davis to the Lakers, fans were pumped. Williamson had dominated at every level of basketball and was still just 19 years old. However, with his hype came genuine concern about how he’d handle the NBA with regards to his knees, as SB Nation details.
Williamson is not tall for an average NBA big man, but he is heavy. Perhaps, due to the extra weight he’s carrying, his knees have given him problems since high school. Every step along his NBA journey came with hype, but it also came with added concerns about his survival in the big leagues. He missed time in high school, college, and Summer League before the Pelicans pulled him in the preseason.
Williamson was on the rocks until January. While he was on a minutes restriction from the get-go, he showed as much promise as he could for the first month-and-a-half before the hiatus. However, with four months to get in shape, head coach Alvin Gentry’s minutes restriction remained when the season returned in the Orlando bubble.
The Pelicans are fighting for their playoff lives in the Orlando Bubble. Although many believe that the NBA bent over backward to get its newest superstar into the bubble, Williamson is not getting star minutes. In the late moments of the team’s first game back, they had a chance to beat the Utah Jazz and get into prime position for a playoff spot. He watched the final minutes from the bench.
Williamson has been vocal about how disappointed Gentry’s restriction is to him. Still, he also understands that his long-term safety is more important than immediate success. Minutes restrictions, however, can be a slippery slope. Sometimes, if a player is on a limitation, the team will let him play through it if there is a chance to play meaningful minutes at the end of a close game.
The 76ers occasionally did this with Joel Embiid, reports NBC Sports, but also chose to be strict at other times. On the other hand, however, the Warriors didn’t put Kevin Durant on a restriction when he returned to the 2019 NBA Finals. He tore his Achilles tendon in that game.
Not putting Embiid in the final minutes of the first game back in the bubble might have been overprotective. After all, an extra minute of playing time won’t elevate it that much. However, Gentry also knows the kind of goldmine at his disposal.
After knowing many players throughout his career, he knows how important it is to value long-term help. His decision might have been silly, but it also could have saved Williamson from himself.