The mutual failings of Zion Williamson and the Pelicans
No one is doing their job right now. Except Herb Jones.
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Love and Pain (Vampire), Edvard Munch, 1895
I don’t disagree with J.J. Redick, a former New Orleans Pelican who called out Zion Williamson over reports he had not reached out to new star teammate C.J. McCollum after the trade happened a couple weeks ago. Redick says this is a basic courtesy of a star player to a new teammate, a standard act of professionalism. He’s right.
For what it’s worth, Williamson has apparently reached out to McCollum in the aftermath of C.J.’s initial comment that he hadn’t heard from Zion. There’s also this context:
Again, to be clear: I agree with Redick. If Zion is the superstar he wants to be, the best player on the team, the franchise cornerstone: he should reach out to his new teammate, even if he’s not actually in New Orleans because he’s off in Oregon rehabbing an injury that has kept him out all season. There are a bunch of red flags about Zion’s interest in being a part of the Pelicans organization that are flying around here.
Redick says this is a pattern with Williamson, him not showing full commitment to the team and his teammates. Redick says he brought it up during Zion’s rookie season; we don’t know exactly the context for that, whether Williamson was receptive, whether Redick was convincing as a veteran role player and former Duke star. I think we know now the lesson didn’t take.
We also know that the Pelicans front office has been outside Zion’s circle a few times now: when it came to his offseason injury, when it came to a timeline for his recovery, now as Zion has left the team to rehab independently. Think about Joel Embiid’s long rehab to start his NBA career, much of it spent away from the team (even on other continents). Was there ever any question that the franchise was deeply involved at every step? No. It was clear this was a partnership to get Embiid ready for the NBA. And when Embiid finally did hit the NBA, the strong relationship was evident. This is the opposite of that, at least by appearances. And the fact that David Griffin or Willie Green or Brandon Ingram couldn’t connect Zion and McCollum after the trade tells of a real disconnect between the team and the star.
But also: what have the Pelicans done to support Zion’s growth as a leader? New Orleans has had three different coaches in the three years since drafting Williamson. As a rookie, Zion had veteran leadership from Jrue Holiday, Redick, Derrick Favors and E’Twaun Moore. All of them except for Redick were gone in Year 2: the new vets were Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams. And Redick departed midseason, with Bledsoe and Adams both getting traded in the summer. Lonzo Ball, purportedly to be Zion’s best friend on the team and clearly his most functionally symbiotic co-star, didn’t get re-signed.
Zion is 21. His entire professional career has existed on deeply unstable ground. Changing the head coach every offseason, trading away all the team’s veteran leadership, completely ignoring the positive impact of stability for a young superstar struggling with body management and injuries: the Pelicans franchise has a good deal of culpability in whatever’s going wrong here.
When you draft a talent like Zion, you have a one job: create a stable, positive environment conducive to winning and happiness. The Bucks did that once it became clear Giannis Antetokounmpo was a superstar on the rise: there’s been one coaching change since his sophomore season, and the front office has consistently sought to add stable, veteran talent to the roster. The superstar has work to do as well to make it all harmonious: Giannis has repeatedly done that, Zion apparently hasn’t. But unless Zion fired Alvin Gentry, hired and fired Stan Van Gundy and made all those transactions, he’s not solely to blame here. The Pelicans have failed at their job of creating a stable, positive environment conducive to winning and happiness. There’s no way around that.
We should also note that C.J. McCollum is 30 and considers himself a star player. Off jump, he should see himself as the locker room leader New Orleans needs, someone to help guide Zion, Brandon Ingram and Herb Jones together and to the next level. That he was unable or unwilling to get into contact with Zion independently but able and willing to sell him out as a bad teammate on national television — even if unintentional on C.J.’s part, and I truly believe that McCollum did not intend to blow him up like that; stuff happens when you get on camera — is just another misstep for the Pels. It’s a failure of the franchise (David Griffin or whoever is managing player personnel on a day-to-day basis) to allow this to happen and get out and become a hot topic during the otherwise quiet All-Star break.
Zion didn’t do his job as the star of the team, that’s clear. He’s not doing his job. He’s contributing nothing from a physical, emotional or spiritual standpoint to the team’s chase for the play-in. Nothing. But in this episode, lots of people aren’t doing their jobs. David Griffin and his basketball operations team, losing a line to Zion this season and losing grip on him prior to that due at least in part to the franchise’s instability: not doing their jobs. C.J. McCollum, falling short in his first job as a new leader of the team and exacerbating the situation to no benefit for anyone: not doing his job. Brandon Ingram, who could be the connective tissue between parties here as Zion’s co-star and the current on-court leader (by performance if nothing else): not doing his job.
There’s smoke around Zion, and Redick’s comments as a former teammate make the smoke all the more thick. We can leave reporters with sources to describe what’s really happening (or not happening), whenever it happens (or not). But it’s increasingly more clear every single day that this is not going well, and that there is plenty of blame to go around, inclusive of and beyond Zion himself. No one appears to be doing a good job of fixing the problems that have become overwhelming and obvious.
This may reach a crisis point in the summer as the Pelicans determine whether to replace the front office, whether to offer Zion a supermax extension and whether Zion decides to take it or defer until restricted free agency in 2023. But if the situation is as bad as it looks from the outside, perhaps the crisis point has already come and a future between the parties is unworkable. In which case, here’s your new NBA star trade drama, in the event you’re disappointed the Harden and Simmons saga resolved earlier this month.
For the sake of Pelicans fans, I hope this is salvageable and we can all see a few years of the partnership everyone’s been salivating over: Zion and Herb Jones.
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This is cool.
Be excellent to each other.
Sounds like an old-fashioned failure to communicate. With his millions, experience, & glittering accomplishments, & his role as the new de-facto team leader, couldn’t McCollum simply have picked up his phone & called Williamson? How hard is that? And by the same token, since Williamson has essentially nothing to do all day, couldn’t he have done the same to welcome McCollum? Common guys, all basketball fans look up to you!!
This is a bit harsh on the current team. Don’t think Willie, CJ, BI, or anyone on the current roster is to blame here. They’re trying to make a playoff run with their currently constructed roster. The energy around the team of late has been entirely positive other than Zion’s harrowing silence.