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The Season of Zion Williamson Will Now Have to Start Without Him

The Pelicans announced Friday that their star rookie will miss at least the first few weeks of the NBA season with a knee injury. The injury reportedly isn’t severe, but may still be cause for concern for a player who’s dealt with knee issues since high school.

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What could be, what was expected to be, the season of Zion Williamson is now officially going to tip off without him. Williamson has been diagnosed with an ominous knee injury that will reportedly force him to miss a “period of weeks,” including Tuesday night’s NBA opener. What initially looked to be a tantalizing matchup between the Pelicans and the Raptors now seems like it could be a dud. Why we can’t have nice things?

Williamson’s knee injury was first made public on Thursday, when the Pelicans decided to keep him from traveling to Friday’s preseason game against the Knicks. Early reports made it clear that this was not just a precautionary holdout, and Friday morning’s timing update confirmed it. While the Pelicans are reportedly certain that the injury isn’t severe and that Zion will make a full recovery (he better!), Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports also reported that the team is “relieved” he’s “avoided any major long-term issues.”

Zion looked like a supernova talent throughout the preseason, confirming our beliefs about the no. 1 draft pick and even ramping up our expectations. I raved about him in another Friday piece, saying that he was “destroying worlds.” He put up historic numbers, bludgeoned teams in the paint, brushed past Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert like he was a speed bump, and looked like he was ready to become an immediate force, one that would turn the Pelicans into a possible playoff team. We were all ready for Zion’s Season—the dunks, the fast breaks, the blocks, the everything.

Now, this forces us to consider the fact that he’s had recurring knee injuries since high school—including the minor sprain he suffered last year at Duke—and that his frame also puts at least 285 pounds of pressure on his knees at any given moment. It’s a bit of a Catch-22: the combination of size and explosiveness that makes Zion unique is the same thing that makes him vulnerable to recurring knee issues. These kinds of problems don’t just vanish, especially for someone of Zion’s size, and moving forward, something may have to give in order to minimize his wear and tear.

In the immediate future, though, the Pelicans—in addition to crossing their fingers and toes, and saying any prayers they can think of—will have to alter their on-court strategy. Zion looked ready to start and become a heavy contributor, but his absence opens the door for Jahlil Okafor, Derrick Favors, and maybe even Brandon Ingram in some small-ball lineups to fill in the frontcourt minutes. Even at their best, though, none of those players will have the same impact as a healthy Zion likely would have. In the preseason, the Pelicans operated with Zion as their hub on both ends of the floor, but now, there will likely be a shift back toward the guards—Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday—as well as Ingram. Holiday is their best player, but whether Ball can fill in the gaps may determine what kind of record the team can conjure up while Zion’s out. Remember: New Orleans is on the fringe of the playoff picture in the West, where the margin for error, even in October, is slim.

Don’t fret too much, though, Alvin Gentry is here to comfort your concerns:

I guess that’s one way to find the silver lining.