Sunday, March 26 2023

By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer

NEW YORK — With 3:52 left in Wednesday night’s game, the smile — yes, that smile, the one that had captivated the country and charmed stars and presidents — returned.

His team’s lead firmly entrenched, Zion Williamson was finally free to head for the bench. He smiled as he strutted there, and he smiled as he chest-bumped one teammate, Trey Murphy III. He smiled as he embraced another teammate, Brandon Ingram, and he smiled as a third teammate, CJ McCollum, came with his own hug, and he smiled as bounced his way around the bench, a ball of energy, just pure joy.

He smiled as he bounded his way off the Barclays Center court Wednesday night, 130-108 victory over the Brooklyn Nets secure, and down one hallway, and he smiled after yet another hug, this one from the New Orleans Pelicans‘ chief basketball executive, David Griffin. He smiled post-shower as he poked fun at a team staffer for his sharp dress (“Who do you got waiting for you out there?”) and he smiled as he bobbed his way to the media room where he beamed as he tried putting the night and all those feelings, all that joy, into words.

“To play the game I love, and I didn’t get to play it for a long time,” Williamson said, “it was a breath of fresh air.”

Five hundred and thirty-three days had passed since Williamson had last played in an official NBA game, and yet the punishing, pulverizing, powerful array of size and skills looked as sharp as ever. He blasted his way around Ben Simmons and barreled his way through Nic Claxton. He made quick decisions on offense and his hands were active on defense. His final tally: 25 points on 11-for-22 shooting to go along with nine rebounds, four steals and three assists.

“[It’s like] he didn’t miss a beat,” Pelicans head coach Willie Green said after the game. “Just throw the ball into him and wait and watch what he does.”

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Williamson described his performance as “a decent start … there’s a lot of room for improvement.” What stuck out most, he said, were the feelings bubbling inside of him before tip-off and as the game ticked on.

“I forgot, like, the allure of being in an arena,” he said. Even the introduction video for the Nets’ starting lineup, with one of his favorite songs, Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement (interlude)” booming out from the arena speakers, gave him a rush.  

“It was like those subtle things,” Williamson said. “It was like, This is why I love the game, I want to be a part of something like this.” On a few occasions he turned to Pelicans assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon, whom he refers to as his big sister, just to share his joy. 

“Look how God works,” he said to her. 

He’d waited so long, endured so much. “I genuinely love basketball and I wasn’t able to play,” he said. Entering Wednesday night, Williamson had played in just 85 games since being drafted in 2021 first overall — and missed 145. 

There was a fractured finger toward the end of the 2021 season —  one where he had finished the season averaging 27 points on 61 percent shooting and scored more points in the paint than any player since Shaq in 2000 — that had ended his year prematurely.

That offseason, he fractured his right foot, which required surgery, which led to rehab, and from there came the repeated setbacks and prolonged absence, and the weight gain, and the reports that he was rehabbing on the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon, as opposed to with the team, all of which led to a series of questions and columns and TV segments about his commitment, both to the Pelicans and to maintaining a proper physique. And not just from talking heads.

“Look, I was his teammate, I can describe him as a detached teammate,” former NBA player J.J. Reddick, who played with Williamson in New Orleans, said on ESPN in February 2022. 

For a point, the Pelicans seemed better without him. After getting off to an ugly 3-16 start, they found their footing, and, after trading for C.J. McCollumn, reeled off wins in 13 of their final 25 regular season games, then knocked off the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers in the play-in tournament before giving the Phoenix Suns a first-round scare and taking them to six games. The success — and questioning of whether a team with Ingram, McCollum and Williamson could thrive together — led some to question whether the Pelicans would even offer Williamson a mega-extension.

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Williamson and the Pelicans did agree to a deal, a five-year contract extension that is worth $193 million but could climb to $231 million if Williamson hits some incentives, and Wednesday night served as a reminder why. As Williamson said when asked about a thunderous dunk, “You know it had been so long I had forgot that I have that kind of impact when it comes to certain things that I don’t really notice it until my teammates are, like, ‘Bro, that’s different,’ and I’m like, ‘Bro, what are you talking about?'” 

More than that, though, was how Williamson’s presence seemed to click everything into place. The Pelicans offense was humming, with Williamson’s interior gravity loosening the floor for his teammates, and the defense was swarming, with arms and legs everywhere, and even Williamson, not one known for his defensive instincts, getting in on the action with some swift swipes. Squint and you could see the outline of a team that, just maybe, could contend for supremacy in the West.  

“We all have the same goals and that’s just to win,” Williamson said. A few minutes later he was up again, hopping to the team bus, smiling some more.

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Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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