One of the most anticipated debuts in recent history—not just in basketball, but sports at large—will have to wait a bit longer. Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson will miss six to eight weeks following arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported on Monday. It’s dispiriting for everyone: Zion, the Pelicans, and the league as a whole.
Williamson’s surgery will sideline him anywhere from 20 to 30 games, if that timeline holds. The ripple effects of that near-two-month absence will extend far and wide, putting a dent in Williamson’s Rookie of the Year odds, the Pelicans’ playoff chances, and the league’s prime-time schedule. Concerns over Zion’s long-term health are also bubbling to the surface. Everyone from Paul Pierce to Nike to ESPN’s Seth Greenberg to Coach K is concerned with Williamson’s weight; the Duke product is officially listed at 284 pounds on a 6-foot-7 frame. After Williamson’s knee injury was first made public on October 18, ahead of the Pelicans’ final preseason game against the Knicks, Pierce recommended Williamson “lose a little bit more weight.” Greenberg called Williamson “significantly overweight,” while Coach K said he wasn’t in “playing shape” this offseason and shouldn’t have played in summer league at all. (He lasted only nine minutes in summer league before he bumped his left knee into an opponent.)
Though the wording could’ve been a tad more sensitive, especially in Greenberg’s case, some apprehension over Zion’s size is warranted. Half of flying through the air is landing, and with his 45-inch vertical and a game dependent on reaching the rim, it’s crucial that Williamson comes down as gently as he possibly can. In four preseason games, Williamson averaged 23.3 points on 71.4 percent shooting in 27.3 minutes. He was everything the Pelicans were promised for their future; his injury takes New Orleans back to the past. The team’s last franchise-altering superstar, Anthony Davis, had his tenure defined by injuries. The Pelicans don’t want Davis 2.0—they want Zion 1.0, and that starts by staying on the court.
If there is a silver lining for the team, it’s that the new pieces around Williamson can jell before he returns. And though he’s not nearly as exciting a prospect anymore, Brandon Ingram makes the frontcourt loss easier to swallow. New Orleans might be used to health complications, but depth is new.
The injury is also a major blow to the NBA, which has bet big on Zion’s appeal this season. Williamson was already slated to miss Tuesday’s season opener against Toronto, the first of 30 nationally televised games for the Pelicans, a franchise record. Without Williamson or a superstar on the defending champion Raptors, that tilt feels like the most inessential season tipoff in recent memory, and it’ll only get worse for the league’s TV prospects. If Williamson is out for the entire eight weeks, the Pelicans would be making 13 nationally televised appearances without their biggest attraction. (Last season, New Orleans played 13 games on national TV total.)
It’s borderline insensitive to mention how unfortunate this is for league officials when an actual player is the one who suffered an injury, but losing Williamson could also be a loss of money, loss of fan interest, loss of entertainment, loss of a playoff berth, and loss of a brilliant beginning to a career. That’s a lot of weight to carry at just 19.