Pelicans have a $200 million decision to make on Williamson

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New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) watches a shoot around before game six of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns, Friday, April 29, 2022 in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

METAIRIE, La. – Zion Williamson says he'll jump at the chance to sign an extension with the New Orleans Pelicans this summer.

It doesn't sound certain that one will be offered.

And that is the $200 million — give or take — question that the Pelicans face this offseason, whether to offer the former No. 1 overall pick a lucrative extension that would kick in starting with the 2023-24 season, or roll the dice and see if he can get healthy enough to be a contributor to a team that believes it has a bright future.

“When it’s time to have that (conversation), we’ll have it,” Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said. “Right now what we’re focused on is him being healthy, and kind of elite condition to play basketball and we’ll start there. I think once we get to that point, all those conversations get a lot easier.”

Williamson played in 24 games as a rookie, then 65 games in his second year — and zero games this season, when the Pelicans overcame a 1-12 start to finish 36-46, then win two play-in games and make the Western Conference quarterfinals. He's had knee issues, his weight has been a concern, and a fractured foot was the issue this season.

“I wouldn’t be able to sign it fast enough,” Williamson said when asked if he would sign an extension.

It's a major decision for the Pelicans, who obviously would love to add a player of Williamson's enormous skill level to a core that took the top-seeded Phoenix Suns to six games in the playoffs. There is excitement in New Orleans about the finish, and the future, and rightly so.

“Words cannot describe how excited I am,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said Friday, when the team held its end-of-season meetings before before dispersing for the summer. “I’m ready to get right back to work.”

The question is when Williamson will be ready to work.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft and an All-Star last season said Friday that he could have been in the Pelicans' lineup down the stretch this season, but he and the organization “decided longevity was better than trying to rush back.”

Williamson was speaking to reporters for the first time since media day last September. During his silence questions arose about whether he was unhappy in New Orleans.

“I can’t control rumors,” Williamson said. “Anybody who knows me knows I want to be here.”

Griffin said Williamson is a few weeks away from his next evaluation, which the Pelicans hope will result in restrictions being removed from the player’s workout routine.

Williamson acknowledged he was in “a mentally bad space” at times during the season because of the frustration due to his slow-healing injury.

He didn’t initially reach out to CJ McCollum, whom the Pelicans acquired along with Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell in a February trade.

Williamson said he texted McCollum, a 10-year veteran whose arrival fueled New Orleans’ late-season surge, to apologize for not reaching out sooner.

“CJ was cool about it,” Williamson said. “He’s a great dude. The short amount of time I have been around him, I’ve learned so much from him. Great teammate. I’m excited to get on the court with him. I’m in a great space now.

“We have a lot of great pieces. We have a special group. When I got around the fellas, it was always good vibes with them.”

Green began his tenure with the expectation that he would build his team around Williamson and forward Brandon Ingram, who had a breakout series in his first playoff appearance this season. But Williamson was never available.

“I love that he wants to be here, that he wants to be in the gym, working toward getting healthy, working toward being the best player he can be," Green said.

Green said three rookies who played prominent roles — first-round pick Trey Murphy III, second-round pick Herbert Jones Jr. and free agent Jose Alvarado — will benefit significantly from the experience of playing “meaningful games” at the end of the season.

“My message to our team is that there will be expectations,” Green said. “We won’t sneak up on people, but that’s good. That’s what lets you know you’re a good team and that’s what we’re striving to become.”


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