NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Pelicans power forward Zion Williamson said little to temper the expectations of those eagerly anticipating his return to an NBA court.
The 2019 first overall draft choice out of Duke — who has missed more games than he’s played in his first three pro seasons because of knee and foot injuries — didn’t request patience as he re-integrates his unusual combination of size, explosiveness and skill back into New Orleans’ lineup for the first time in more than a year.
Rather, the 22-year-old Williamson portrayed his physical well-being, mental focus and sense of purpose as enhanced to their highest levels yet.
“The best way to describe it is I found true resolve through the game of basketball,” Williamson said Monday while discussing his two-month training stint in south Florida this summer, after he’d signed his five-year, $193 million contract extension.
“Something mentally in me shifted, changed. And the game of basketball – that’s it for me. That’s my love. That’s what I want to do,” Williamson continued. “I’m just excited to get out there and show the world what I can do.”
Pelicans players were dressed in their home white jerseys as they took part in promotional photos, videos and interviews for the the club’s media day. Williamson, who is listed at 6-foot-6, 284 pounds, appeared fit and jocular as he interacted with team personnel, photographers and reporters inside the Smoothie King Center, the club’s home stadium.
“He looks great. His mentality’s great,” veteran forward Larry Nance Jr. said. “Now I’ve got to put on some padding to deal with this beating I’m going to take (while trying to guard Williamson) in training camp.”
Williamson mentioned Nance as one of the veterans upon whom he leaned for guidance about how to approach staying healthy. Nance said he basically told Williamson that Lamborghini drivers don’t fill up with cheap gas, and that he should treat his body the same way.
“I feel like I’m at my best right now, moving faster, jumping higher. I just – I feel great,” said Williamson,
“It’s one of those feelings where I’m in the gym ... and I’m like, ‘Oh, man! I can really do that! That’s different,’” Williamson said. “I learned a lot from a nutrition standpoint, from a working out standpoint, how long I need to be in the gym and the most efficient way to work out.”
Much has changed since last winter, when Williamson was away from the team, rehabilitating his foot on his own in Oregon, while the Pelicans were trying to salvage a season in which they’d gotten off to a 1-12 start under first-year coach Willie Green.
It was unclear whether Williamson or the Pelicans envisioned a long-term future together — no promise of an extension.
But the Pelicans acquired veteran, high-scoring guard CJ McCollum shortly before last season’s trade deadline, and he helped wing player Brandon Ingram and center Jonas Valanciunas lead a cast of feisty, young players into the playoffs.
Now, Williamson is contractually tied to New Orleans for the long term, and the Pelicans are eager to see how much more of a contender he can make them.
“We talked throughout the playoffs about what could have been if he was healthy,” guard Garrett Temple said. “So, now we have that chance, and we’re ready to attack it.”
While Williamson has played in just 85 games, he has averaged 25.7 points and seven rebounds. And he was an All-Star in his second season, when he played 61 games and averaged 27 points.
But he has yet to play under Green or alongside McCollum, Valanciunas or second-year pro Herb Jones, who emerged as a starter last season because of his strong defensive play.
“You add a guy like Z and you have to change some things in terms of how you play,” McCollum said. “It takes time to develop basketball chemistry. We can kick it and go to dinner, but now we’ve got to figure out how to make it work on the court — and I think we will.
“He’s a force to be reckoned with. I think his production speaks for itself on how consistent he’s been when he’s played,” McCollum added. “His input and his impact on the game will be felt every night and he should make the game easier for all of us. I think that’s what great players do.”
Notes: David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, said guard Kira Lewis Jr., the club’s 2020 first-round draft choice, has made significant progress in his recovery from reconstructive right knee surgery last season, but is not yet ready for full-speed, five-on-five work.
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