While other NBA players started working out in their home markets this week to prepare for training camp, Zion Williamson never left.
The New Orleans Pelicans‘ rookie phenom has been a regular at the team’s facility throughout the hiatus, one of several players the league granted exceptions to allow them to rehab injuries under the supervision of team trainers to avoid any setbacks. All team facilities were closed on March 20, nine days after the season was suspended because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“Zion has been diligent about taking care of himself,” said David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations. “He’s in a good space physically and mentally.”
Another team source went a step further.
“He’s going to shock some people,” the source said.
Williamson’s ability to consistently work out is a win for the Pelicans, who hope to climb into the West’s No. 8 playoff spot once play resumes July 30 at Walt Disney World. But having Williamson healthy and able to play is also a victory for the NBA.
While multiple league sources pushed back on the thought that the NBA went out of its way to include the Pelicans in the bubble, having one of its biggest draws available for at least eight more games is undoubtedly good for business.
“I would think any time they play — you can put it on a Tuesday night, whenever — people will watch that game,” a Western Conference executive said of having Williamson playing inside the bubble.
Other league sources expect the Pelicans to get plenty of prime-time television opportunities in Orlando.
“It’s obvious a ton of people will watch just to watch him,” another Western Conference executive said. “Go back and look at how full the arena was at summer league to go watch him play. It will be huge.”
From opening night, the league went all-in on Williamson.
Television partners loaded up on Pelicans games — particularly early in the season — before he was forced to undergo knee surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee the day before the season opened. That forced New Orleans to play 12 national TV games without him, but once he was able to return to the court, he proved to be worth the wait.
More than 2.4 million people tuned in for his NBA debut on Jan. 22 against the San Antonio Spurs. Nine of his 19 games were nationally televised, with those games averaging 30% more viewers than an average national TV broadcast this season.
“Compared to most other young players, [the league is] invested in him,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “There are few of these guys that, instead of just being popular within basketball, can expand the relevance of the NBA. They hope he can do that for them.”
In the bubble, that stage could grow.
If New Orleans can elbow its way from 10th in the Western Conference standings into the eighth seed, a first-round matchup with the No. 1-seeded Los Angeles Lakers probably would be a ratings bonanza for the league. The teams’ matchup on Feb. 27 in Los Angeles on TNT drew 2.24 million viewers and a game in New Orleans on March 1 on ESPN had 2.69 million viewers.
It would also allow the NBA to showcase its biggest star, LeBron James, against one of the players who could eventually succeed him as the league’s marquee attraction.
“[Williamson is] a guy that drives eyeballs and attention,” said the Eastern Conference executive, before referencing another rising star coming off an injury who met a title favorite in the NBA playoffs almost 30 years ago.
“[The NBA] would love to have a Michael Jordan versus the ’86 Celtics moment in the first round,” the executive continued. “If they could get their ideal world, that’s what they would want.”
The Pelicans are simply chasing a goal set before the season: play meaningful games at the end of the season. That pursuit has been helped by Williamson being permitted to continue using Ochsner Sports Performance Center over the past few months, alongside teammate Kenrich Williams, who was recovering from a back injury.
“We were fortunate,” Griffin said. “They’re able to do a lot of the things that they needed to do from a strength and conditioning pliability standpoint.”
Pliability has been key as the Pelicans have navigated Williamson’s injury this season. One of the main reasons Williamson’s original six-to-eight-week timetable for a return from surgery stretched to 13 weeks was because the Pelicans wanted to make sure his body was able to move around at 285 pounds without undue stress. Though the Pelicans didn’t disclose Williamson’s current weight, one team source said the team is “happy with where he is physically” and doesn’t expect him to come into camp overweight.
Aaron Nelson, the team’s vice president of player care and performance, and head trainer Tom Maystadt have been directly involved in Williamson’s workout process and will continue to have input into how the team handles its star rookie, being mindful of his stamina and body language when he’s on the court. According to multiple sources, Williamson also did additional work on basketball fundamentals at home during the layoff with his stepfather, Lee Anderson, whom he has long trusted as a trainer and coach.
Now healthy, Williamson should get a chance to play high-intensity basketball under the bright lights, which will be a welcome sight for both the Pelicans and the NBA.
“Those reps against the best players on a bigger stage will be meaningful for Zion certainly as a 19-year-old,” Griffin said while also noting the team’s other young players. “I think it’s important for those guys to play some meaningful-slash-playoff basketball.”