Even in a year where their record is just 23-36, the New Orleans Pelicans have a lot to be excited about. Brandon Ingram is playing at an All-Star level and CJ McCollum is off to a rip-roaring start through his first two weeks with the team. Yet a 6-foot-6, 284-pound cloud named Zion Williamson has loomed over the Pelicans all season.
Williamson, New Orleans’ top pick from 2019, has been out all season due to a lengthy recovery from a broken foot suffered during the summer. With no timetable set for his return, the likelihood of Zion’s third season being lost to injury grows with each passing day.
However, there have been rumblings about Williamson’s long-term future with the franchise. And by the looks of things now, it doesn’t appear the young superstar has much time left in the Bayou.
The New Orleans Pelicans purposefully excluded Zion Williamson in a message to season ticket holders
Zion has made no on-court impact for the Pelicans this season. But when healthy, the 21-year-old is easily one of the game’s most dominant forwards, averaging 25.7 points on 60.4% shooting through 85 career games.
But it appears averaging just under 26 points and making an All-Star team before his third year wasn’t enough for New Orleans to mention him in its recent message to season ticket holders.
Fletcher Mackel, an anchor for WDSU Channel 6 in New Orleans, tweeted out a photo of an email the Pelicans sent out regarding 2022-23 ticket renewals. The email began with the following:
“Led by new Head Coach Willie Green and players Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas, and CJ McCollum, the Pelicans are building something special across the street from the Caesars Superdome.”
McCollum, who’s played five games with the Pels, managed to earn a mention. Valanciunas, a 10-year veteran with no All-Star appearances, also earned a mention in the email. However, Zion was nowhere to be found.
Zion looks destined to join Chris Paul and Anthony Davis as wasted superstars in New Orleans
It’s not as if the Pelicans franchise has struggled to obtain high-caliber players. In 2005, New Orleans drafted Chris Paul with the fourth overall pick but traded him six years later after three playoff appearances and a single series victory. In 2012, the Pels (then Hornets) made Anthony Davis their first-ever number one selection. But they shipped him to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2019 following two forgettable postseason trips.
Unlike CP3 and AD, Zion has only spent three seasons with the Pelicans. But all signs are pointing to his time with the franchise running out.
Before the season even started, Williamson’s frustration with New Orleans was evident. The former Duke star was upset with how the team was handling his rehabilitation, as well as the fact the team missed the playoffs by a wide margin in each of his first two seasons.
Yet the team’s season ticket email is proof that it’s just as frustrated with Williamson.
Zion’s durability issues are extremely concerning, considering the 21-year-old has already missed 118 of a possible 203 career games. Now consider that Williamson has largely been absent from the team, choosing to rehab in Portland instead of New Orleans. He’s also fallen short as a leader, failing to reach out to McCollum despite the trade taking place nearly two weeks ago.
The Pelicans reluctantly moved on from Paul and Davis, two franchise icons who weren’t supported with a championship-caliber roster. But when it comes to Zion, they might be the ones ready to initiate an exit strategy.
The Pelicans have a $175 million dilemma they must answer this summer
A year ago, it was a foregone conclusion that the summer of 2022 would be quite lucrative for Williamson. The high-flying power forward will be eligible for a max contract extension worth $175.5 million over five seasons.
That’s of course assuming the Pels want to commit that length and dollar amount to an unhappy player with a troubling medical record.
There was already a growing sense that Williamson could actually turn down the rookie max extension, something no player in NBA history has ever done. But what if New Orleans is the one who feels uneasy about the big man sticking around?
If the Pelicans don’t want to sign Zion to an extension this offseason, the 2019 top pick would officially become a restricted free agent in 2023. While the Pelicans would have the option to match any contract he receives — likely a four-year, $130 million max — they could also agree to a sign-and-trade before parting ways with their franchise star.
Even with Ingram and McCollum, the Pelicans won’t ultimately compete for a title unless Zion is healthy. Though all evidence has proven that his health, along with his commitment to the franchise, can’t be relied upon.
Expect an interesting few months in the Big Easy.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.