The New Orleans Pelicans will sign 22-year-old oft-injured occasional superstar Zion Williamson to a five-year, $193 million designated player contract extension, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
The deal will pay him $231 million if he makes an All-NBA team or wins league MVP honors next season.
Both sides previously expressed optimism about this contract, despite Williamson’s health, which has limited him to 85 games in his first three years, including all of last season, and several reports of friction between Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin and the player he drafted No. 1 overall in 2019.
“It’s not a big decision; it’s a pretty easy decision,” Griffin said on The Ryen Russillo Podcast of offering Williamson a max deal. “The kid’s historically good when he plays. … This is a max player. That’s easy.”
Knee problems followed Williamson into the NBA, and a torn right meniscus cost him all but 24 games of his rookie year. He averaged 27 points (on 61/29/70 shooting splits), 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 33.2 minutes over 61 games during the 2020-21 campaign, making an All-Star appearance in his lone stretch of healthy basketball in the league. But a fractured right foot sidelined him for the entirety of last season.
The injuries raised questions about Williamson’s conditioning at 6-foot-6 and (perhaps conservatively) 284 pounds. No player under 6-9 is within 25 pounds of Williamson’s listed weight, and nobody comparable to his height and weight has ever enjoyed a long NBA career. Then again, nobody that size is as exceptionally athletic as Williamson, whose highlight reels made him the most anticipated prospect since LeBron James.
The Pelicans are banking on Williamson’s fulfilling that promise over the life of his contract extension, and their commitment signals confidence that his foot and knee problems may not be longterm concerns.
Whether or not Williamson finishes this deal in New Orleans, even if healthy, will be the subject of much debate in the years to come. Both Chris Paul and Anthony Davis, the only other superstars the franchise has ever known, both requested trades from the small market before the end of their similar contracts.
Those concerns fueled debate long before this deal. If you trust the reporting from the last three years, Williamson was unhappy with the organization’s cautious treatment of his knee injury, and his rehabilitation from the foot injury at Nike’s Oregon facilities did not quell those rumors. Neither did reports of Williamson’s family wanting out of New Orleans or his stilted communication with new teammate CJ McCollum.
All the while, Williamson insisted, “Anybody that knows me … they know that I love New Orleans,” “I do want to be here,” and, when asked about the possibility of an extension, “I couldn’t sign it fast enough.”
The Pelicans’ success without Williamson this past season helped sell Williamson on the team’s direction. Brandon Ingram continued to perform at a star level. Second-round pick Herbert Jones was a revelation. Trades for Jonas Valanciunas and McCollum brought veteran stability to an otherwise inexperienced roster.
Together, they pushed the Pelicans from a 3-16 start to a play-in tournament berth and the Western Conference’s eighth seed. The 64-win Phoenix Suns needed an all-time great playoff performance from Paul to avoid a Game 7 in the first round against a New Orleans upstart. Adding Williamson to that series might have made all the difference, or at least that is the theory behind paying him to be that player.
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