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A Crucial Season for Zion and the Pelicans Is Starting on the Wrong Foot

A broken bone in his right foot could complicate Williamson’s return to action and New Orleans’s start to the 2021-22 season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

New Orleans is coming off of three consecutive sub-.500 seasons, it just fired Stan Van Gundy and hired Willie Green to be its third head coach in as many years, and the rumblings over the potential future plans of its franchise cornerstone are getting louder and louder: This is shaping up to be an awfully consequential season for the Pelicans. The kind that you hope to sprint out of the gates quickly; the kind that you’d really like to get off on the right foot.

Well, media day in New Orleans did focus on the right foot. Unfortunately, though, it was Zion Williamson’s right foot, which he evidently broke this summer.

In his opening remarks to reporters on Monday, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin explained that Williamson had undergone surgery to repair a fractured bone in his right foot before summer league. Williamson attributed the injury to “overdoing it with my training” after a season in which he made his first All-Star Game, but the Pelicans stumbled to a disappointing 31-41 mark that left them two games outside the play-in tournament.

According to Griffin, Williamson’s timeline to return “should get him back on the court in time for the regular season—that would be our hope and our view.”

“Unfortunately, I know that’s going to be taken as a very big negative for all of you,” Griffin told reporters. “It’s really not for us, because we were dealing with it all offseason, and we feel very confident about where things are.”

Griffin said that Williamson broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot—a fairly common injury for basketball stars, one that players like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Ben Simmons, Pau Gasol, and Brook Lopez have suffered. The good news, according to Jeff Stotts of the injury-focused website In Street Clothes: The “average time lost for in-season fifth metatarsal fractures is about 42 games,” because surgical repair typically takes anywhere from six to 10 weeks. Though cases that occurred in the offseason, Stotts wrote, “missed an average of 15 games with several players active on opening night.” (This offseason, of course, will be about a month shorter than usual.)

Stotts also notes that Aaron Nelson, the Pelicans’ vice president of player care and performance, had “prior success managing fifth metatarsal fractures” during his tenure with the Phoenix Suns; in 2009, he helped bring Robin Lopez back from surgery “in just 52 days [without] any associated setbacks or complications.” It’s possible, then, that the optimism projected on Monday by Griffin, Williamson, Green, and the rest of the Pelicans is warranted, and that Zion—who wasn’t wearing a walking boot at media day—will be ready to go when New Orleans tips off against Joel Embiid and the 76ers on October 20.

Even if there’s cause for optimism and a glass-half-full view, it’s still not exactly great for the Pelicans that Williamson—New Orleans’s no. 1 offensive option and arguably its best facilitator—enters camp limited to working out in the pool and on the treadmill and is “very unlikely” to suit up for preseason action.

“He will get on the floor at some point,” Green told reporters on Monday. “But it’s progression. I don’t want to throw something out there and you guys hold me to it. The timeline is that we’re hopeful he can start the season.”

If Williamson does get back in time for Game 1, it’ll be interesting to see both how long it takes him to knock off the rust after several months away from full-strength activity and how the organization will manage his minutes. You might remember that when Zion has returned from injuries before—the torn left meniscus he suffered before his rookie season, and the undisclosed hamstring injury that caused him to leave the bubble—the Pelicans deployed him only in short bursts of playing time to prevent reinjury, and he’d check in for a few minutes of exertion before being subbed back out.

Williamson “detested” the burst plan during his rookie season, according to Christian Clark of The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, and “the way [his] return was handled caused significant tension between him and the team’s medical staff.” Whether this injury prompts the return of the bursts evidently remains an open question:

If Williamson starts the season looking something less like the world-breaking offensive dynamo he was last season, or if he’s delayed in his recovery and not ready for Game 1 after all, things could start to get grim early in New Orleans.

It’s tough to know exactly what to make of the Pelicans’ roster after a hodgepodge of an offseason that saw Griffin ship out starters Lonzo Ball, Steven Adams, and Eric Bledsoe, and bring in Jonas Valanciunas, Devonte’ Graham, Tomas Satoransky, and Garrett Temple. What seems clear, though, is that those veteran imports won’t be the primary drivers of the Pelicans’ potential success this season; their best shot at significant improvement and a rise up the standings lies in ongoing development from the young core that Griffin and Co. have assembled. Players like 2019-20 All-Star Brandon Ingram, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kira Lewis, Naji Marshall, and rookie Trey Murphy III can help cushion the blow of a Zion injury by adding some extra punch, playmaking, and two-way impact. It’s hard to envision them wholly making up for his absence, though, which could be particularly damaging in a West in which virtually every team besides Oklahoma City and Houston looks capable of reaching postseason play.

With or without Zion, a slow start against a tough slate—New Orleans gets the Sixers, the reloaded Bulls, the reportedly healthy (if characteristically chaotic) Timberwolves, Hawks, Knicks, and Suns all in the first couple of weeks—could put New Orleans behind the eight ball in the race for playoff positioning. If that happens, you wonder if those reports about Williamson’s frustrations with the franchise start to multiply; if the volume gets turned up on the noise about the possibility that he could become the first star player to pass up a maximum-salaried extension of his rookie contract next summer to sign the qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2023; and if Griffin’s seat of power in the Pelicans’ hierarchy will suddenly start getting exceptionally hot.

For now, those gray clouds are off in the distance, and may well disperse before we get to opening night, making way for a returning Zion to provide the kind of ray of sunshine that could get New Orleans fans excited. The Pelicans may start this season on the right foot, after all. You’d be forgiven, though, if media day made you feel a bit like they’re already limping into it.