HOURS BEFORE THE New Orleans Pelicans hosted the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA’s play-in tournament, Zion Williamson took the court with assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon.
Williamson went through light shooting and dribbling drills but certainly saved the best for last.
Late in the workout, Williamson got the ball on the baseline with his eyes fixated on the rim. Two steps in, Williamson exploded and twisted in the air, the ball at his side. As he rotated around back to the rim, he unleashed a windmill jam.
That is where Williamson’s night ended. The fracture in his right foot that had cost him the entire regular season kept him on the sidelines as his team made an unexpected playoff appearance.
A team that started 3-16 found themselves as the No. 8 seed after defeating the Spurs and LA Clippers to earn a first-round matchup against the top-seeded Phoenix Suns.
As Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Co. took the Suns to six games, Williamson cheered his team on in street clothes.
Though the season ended in a first-round exit, rookie head coach Willie Green’s team had plenty to celebrate. McCollum and Ingram looked like a pair of veterans poised to capitalize on the late-season momentum. A trio of rookies — Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy III and Herbert Jones — took on significant playoff minutes.
But questions about Williamson’s future in New Orleans — he would become eligible to sign his rookie contract extension on July 1 — loomed large after a second lost season.
In his first three seasons, Williamson played in a total of 85 games — 24 as a rookie and 61 in his second season. He missed time during his first year with a torn meniscus but was relatively healthy in 2020-21, missing 11 games with two separate hand injuries.
“And obviously that conversation is going to be one that will be a challenge,” Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin told reporters on April 29 when asked about Williamson’s extension.
“When it’s time to have that, we’ll have it. And right now what we’re focused on is him being healthy, and kind of in elite condition to play basketball and we’ll start there.”
The talent was clearly there. The availability was not. Williamson and those around him set out this summer to make sure those concerns were going to become a thing of the past, while very publicly demonstrating the former No. 1 overall pick’s commitment to both the Pelicans organization and the city of New Orleans as a whole.
March 29, 2022: For the first time since returning from Portland to do his rehab, Williamson goes on the road with the Pelicans as he continues to work toward returning to play.
April 5, 2022: Speaking on The Jordy Culotta Show, Williamson’s stepfather Lee Anderson says he expects Williamson to play in the remaining weeks of the 2021-22 season. He adds, “If you were to ask Zion, I’m sure he would probably say the same thing.”
April 7, 2022: The Pelicans announce that Williamson has progressed to full-court 5-on-5 work. Green calls them “controlled scrimmages.”
April 13, 2022: Hours before tip at the Smoothie King Center, ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth records Williamson throwing down a 360 dunk. The Pelicans defeat San Antonio 113-103.
Zion with the 360 dunk during his pregame workout. 👀
He is still out indefinitely but is progressing well and is continuing controlled 5 on 5 work. pic.twitter.com/PyAGJj4ney
— Cassidy Hubbarth (@CassidyHubbarth) April 13, 2022
April 15, 2022: After trailing by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter, the Pelicans storm back to defeat the Clippers 105-101 to earn the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
April 28, 2022: The Pelicans are eliminated in Game 6 of their first-round series against the Phoenix Suns.
April 29, 2022: In his first public comments since September, Williamson is asked about signing his rookie extension. His response: “Of course, I wouldn’t be able to sign it fast enough.” Shortly after, Griffin admits the extension could be a challenge.
May 26, 2022: Williamson is officially cleared for full basketball activities, the final hurdle in his return to play. While there are no games to participate in, it does clear the way for Williamson to attack his offseason full throttle.
WHEN WILLIAMSON WAS drafted, then-New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees told him if you love the city, the city will love you back. Williamson had the opportunity to take Brees’ advice this summer as July 1 approached.
As roughly 85 kids filed out of the Broad Theater, a small four-screen theater nestled in the city’s oldest Black neighborhood, after watching Disney Pixar’s “Lightyear,” one 6-foot-6 frame stood out.
Zion Williamson throws down a windmill dunk and a young camper’s reaction is priceless.
Williamson, dressed in all black with a bucket hat and his own Zion-branded Jordan hoodie, emerged with the campers, who were part of his summer camp in partnership with the Dryades YMCA. The six-week youth basketball camp for boys and girls aged 7 to 14 was more than just your average NBA player’s basketball camp — the 85 kids on this day could grow to 100 on any given week.
As Williamson, Anderson and his trainer Jasper Bibbs exited the theater, they watched as kids filed onto the bus before climbing aboard themselves.
After the kids found their seats, Anderson called out, “Which one is Bus 1 and which one is Bus 2?” Williamson rode over to the theater on one bus and wanted to ride back on the other.
Williamson was in his element at the camp. After he was drafted by New Orleans in the summer of 2019, he didn’t have the time to embed himself in the community as he adjusted to life in the NBA. The following two summers were filled with COVID restrictions that prevented him from getting involved.
Now, he can.
June 9, 2022: Weeks after mentioning the challenge involved in Williamson’s looming extension, Griffin says Williamson’s extension is “an easy decision” while making an appearance on The Ryen Russillo Podcast.
June 11, 2022: Williamson speaks to reporters at the announcement for the opening of his camp at the YMCA. He repeats his desire to remain in New Orleans saying, “I do want to be here.“
June 22, 2022: Williamson’s second signature shoe, the Zion 2, releases. The first release is a “Voodoo” colorway. The second, his “Hope Diamond” colorway, is the shoe he wore while on the court as he was working with the team during April.
July 2, 2022: Williamson agrees to a five-year, $193 million extension that could be worth up to $231 million if he hits All-NBA escalator clauses.
July 6, 2022: On his 22nd birthday, Williamson signs his extension at the YMCA camp surrounded by family and the campers.
STAYING ON THE court has been a focus of Williamson’s since his days at Duke. Last year, he hired Bibbs, who worked with the Utah Jazz and briefly at LSU, as his personal trainer. He also hired Christian Green, a Louisiana-born chef and MasterChef alum, who started working for Williamson once he returned from Portland in March. Green says the focus for Williamson is on “leanness.”
“Our focus is to get him as lean as possible,” Green told ESPN in July. “Get him even healthier because he’s healthy now. I don’t cut no corners with him. I’ll just leave it at that. No sugars with Chef Christian.”
Green says he’s worked side by side with Bibbs to help provide Williamson with the best plan possible. And while the Pelicans have added weight clauses to Williamson’s contract, sources told ESPN’s Bobby Marks that Williamson won’t lose any money on the deal unless he is outright waived by New Orleans.
On July 6, one year to the day he found out he fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, Williamson sat at a table with his family and put pen to paper on a five-year rookie designated max extension.
“For the Pelicans to come give me this birthday gift, I’m not going to let them down,” Williamson said last month. “I’m not going to let my family down. I’m not going to let the city down. And most importantly, I’m not going to let myself down.”
July 9, 2022: Along with fellow Jordan athlete Luka Doncic, Williamson travels to Paris to attend the Quai 54 event.
July 13, 2022: Williamson flies from Paris directly to Las Vegas to meet the Pelicans at Las Vegas Summer League.
JUST AS THE Pelicans’ summer league contest against the Washington Wizards inside the Thomas and Mack Center was set to tip off, Williamson walked in. Fresh off his trip to Paris, Williamson traveled to Las Vegas to support the summer league squad.
Williamson watched as the Pelicans defeated the Wizards despite not having Dyson Daniels, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2022 draft. Daniels played just eight minutes for the Pelicans in summer league after twisting an ankle. Three years ago, Williamson played just nine minutes in Vegas after knee-to-knee contact in his first game.
Williamson sat across from the Pelicans’ bench surrounded by teammates who also made the trip, including Ingram and McCollum, who wasn’t on the team when Williamson last played in a Pelicans uniform on May 4, 2021.
The starting lineup that day included Eric Bledsoe, Lonzo Ball and Steven Adams. James Johnson and James Nunnally were getting minutes off the bench for a team trying to make a late push for the play-in tournament.
Williamson was averaging 27 points and 7.2 rebounds on 61.1% shooting. No player in NBA history has averaged that many points per game while shooting above 60%.
Williamson hasn’t played since, and the Pelicans have added not only McCollum and last year’s rookies to the mix, but also veterans Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance Jr. and Devonte’ Graham.
It was with that core that the Pelicans gave the top-seeded Suns a run for their money in the playoffs. Now, they get to add Williamson to the mix next season.
“Y’all saw this past year what the team did,” Williamson said after signing his deal, “and I’m just excited to add to that.”