Zion Williamson had a remarkable second season in the NBA from an individual perspective. Williamson took on ball handling responsibilities for the first time in his pro carer, and proved to be an unstoppable force going to the basket. He averaged 27 points per game on 61.1 percent shooting from the field, and became the league’s most fearsome finisher at the rim. Williamson is already meeting the sky-high expectations that were set him for entering the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft out of Duke, but team success for the New Orleans Pelicans has yet to follow.
The Pelicans missed the playoffs for the second straight season by finishing 31-41 on the year. While classmates Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett had the opportunity to compete in the postseason, Williamson’s Pelicans are again waiting for next year. Zion will turn 21 years old later this summer and has a long career in front of him, but it’s clear there’s already mounting pressure on the Pelicans to build a winner around him. Parting ways with head coach Stan Van Gundy after just one season is the first move in what’s sure to be a busy offseason in New Orleans.
The pressure to build a winner increased again on Thursday when The Athletic reported that the Pelicans haven’t been able to make Williamson and his family happy in New Orleans. Reporters Shams Charania, Joe Vardon, and William Guillory took an in-depth look at the situation with the young superstar, and reported that “certain family members want Williamson on another team.”
The complaints from Williamson’s family include:
- Frustration with Van Gundy’s demanding coaching style
- Disappointment that the team traded J.J. Redick mid-season
- Uncertainty over whether restricted free agents Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart will return. Williamson has particularly vouched for Ball as a long-term piece
The Pelicans were the surprise winner of the NBA draft lottery in 2019 in the middle of Anthony Davis’ trade demand to the Los Angeles Lakers. When the Pelicans came up with the No. 1 overall pick, Williamson was reportedly dismayed because he was hoping to land with the New York Knicks, who came away with the third pick.
Zion Williamson was QUICKLY whisked out of the room after Pelicans were announced the winner of the draft lottery. Source said the former Duke star was rooting to go to New York, but now is going to New Orleans.— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpears) May 15, 2019
Williamson doubled-down on his love for New York after a game in Madison Square Garden earlier this year.
Even if Williamson did want to leave New Orleans, it would require him playing out the next two years of his rookie contract and then taking a big risk by playing on the qualifying offer. Doing so would require turning down a maximum contract extension from the Pelicans that will likely be worth around $200 million. No young superstar has ever passed on that type of contract extension, and it seems unlikely that Williamson would given his injury history. It’s possible that Williamson is stuck in New Orleans for the foreseeable future.
The Pelicans have to win right now, and it won’t be easy
Williamson is good enough to be an A1 star leading his team to the playoffs, but the Pelicans still have a ton of work to do. Playing in the Western Conference makes it even more challenging. While the Pelicans would ideally let their young players grow together and continue building through the draft, Williamson being this good this soon has put a unique pressure on the organization to build a winner right away. It isn’t dissimilar from what’s happening with the Dallas Mavericks and Luka Doncic.
The Pelicans are already close to capped out even while Williamson is badly underpaid on his rookie contract. New Orleans owes Eric Bledsoe $18 million next season, Steven Adams $17.5 million annually for the next two seasons, and Brandon Ingram $130 million over the next four seasons. That’s before they decide if they want to pay Ball and Hart.
The Pelicans are loaded with future draft assets that would be helpful in a trade. Bradley Beal would be a perfect fit in New Orleans playing off Zion, but it’s likely the Wizards won’t want to trade him just yet. Another option could be C.J. McCollum as the Trail Blazers continue to shake up the organization this offseason.
Do the Pelicans regret trading Jrue Holiday? He was also a veteran player who could have helped them compete for a playoff spot this season.
Who the franchise hires as its next head coach will also be fascinating. Two in-house candidates that have been mentioned are Teresa Weatherspoon and Fred Vinson. Vinson has was credited for helping rework Ball’s jump shot when he came to the Pelicans and has been on staff for more than a decade. Weatherspoon had a terrific career in the WNBA, and would be the first woman ever named as an NBA head coach if she gets the job.
GM David Griffin knows what it’s like to deal with pressure from a superstar. He was the lead decision-maker in Cleveland for LeBron James’ second stint with the franchise, when James was annually signing one-year deals with a player option for the next season. It feels like he’s already in a similar situation with Williamson.
Zion Williamson’s unhappiness in New Orleans shows the NBA draft isn’t fair to players
While he’s never said it publicly, it sure seems like Williamson was hoping to start his NBA career somewhere other than New Orleans. Unfortunately for him, he had no choice in the matter. When the Pelicans won the lottery, Williamson was going to be stuck there for at least five years, and more likely seven years.
For a player like Williamson who has already faced so many injury issues both in college and at the start of his pro career, it’s unfortunate he has to spend his earliest years in the league while he’s in peak physical condition playing for a team he’d prefer not to be with. If Williamson did ask for a trade, suddenly he would look like the bad guy in the situation.
Should young players have more autonomy on where they start their careers? The great Tom Ziller once wrote we should kill the NBA draft, and that argument is sounding more convincing by the day. In any other industry, workers don’t get forced into accepting their first job. Yes, Williamson is making a ton of money in New Orleans even if he’s still wildly out-performing his rookie deal. It just stinks for everyone involved that these rumors are already coming out two years into his career.
Maybe the Pelicans can sneak into the playoffs next season and Williamson will appear more committed to the franchise. Maybe he isn’t as upset as his family is. There certainly has been plenty of smoke about Williamson’s unease in New Orleans since the Pelicans landed his draft rights, though, and this will only make the situation more uncomfortable.
Is Williamson as frustrated as his family is about his tenure with the Pelicans? That’s the big question hanging over the franchise right now. At the moment, all the Pelicans can do is make win-now moves, hire a coach their young star likes, and hope to begin to mend fences. For an organization and fanbase that went through this with Chris Paul and Davis, though, these reports are the last thing they want to see.