For New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson, quarantine presented a new set of challenges. How does a 285-pound athlete who was two months removed from returning from knee surgery stay in shape?
The NBA provided one lifeline when it cleared Williamson to continue his rehab at the Pelicans facility even after the league shut down operations. The second lifeline for Williamson came from his stepfather, Lee Anderson.
“At first, I’m a say it was very tough (to stay in shape), because even now you still don’t know what’s fully going on with that situation,” Williamson said on Thursday morning. “But me and my stepdad just found different ways to stay in condition, on-court, off-court, just wherever we could find it.”
Williamson said he got on the court “every day” during the quarantine period with his stepdad, since he wasn’t allowed to work with the Pelicans’ coaching staff per the NBA guidelines. When asked where he was working out, Williamson let out a laugh.
“I can’t tell you all my secrets, man,” Williamson said. “Some things I gotta keep to myself.”
While we don’t know what kind of basketball shape Williamson is in, he did say he feels like he’s in good shape heading into the NBA restart. The Pelicans will kick things off for the NBA’s eight seeding games on July 30 when the team plays the Utah Jazz.
Count Josh Hart as one of Williamson’s teammates who was impressed with how he looked in the gym once players got back together.
“I think body-wise, he looks amazing,” Hart said. “He looks good. His shot looks better than it has in a while. He’s been putting the work in, and that’s great to see.
“And he’s one of the players that has one of the biggest spotlights in the league and in the world right now. So he’s handled everything with great humility. I’m very surprised and proud of just how he handles all that stuff.”
When the Pelicans return to the court against the Jazz, they will do so attempting to make up a 3.5-game deficit to the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
If New Orleans can stay within four games of the Grizzlies and claim the ninth seed — while holding off Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio and Portland — it would find itself in a play-in tournament against Memphis. Or, possibly overtake Memphis and become the eighth seed.
It’s a battle that was ramping up as the season was halted. But Hart feels that if the Pelicans had Williamson for more than just 19 games, the eighth seed wouldn’t be what they were chasing at this point.
“I think if we had him at the beginning of the year, the story wouldn’t be ‘fight for the eighth seed’; it would’ve been ‘we’re a 4- or 5-seed in the West,'” Hart said. “Honestly, that’s my opinion. Unfortunately we weren’t able to have him at the beginning of the year, but he’s helped turn this organization and this season around.”
Williamson said the team’s focus in Orlando is to make a playoff push, but he agreed with Hart that the team could have been much more dangerous if everyone had been healthy for the entire year.
“I think this team can be really special when we’re all healthy,” Williamson said. “It’s just a matter of us coming together, fighting those mental battles of being in the bubble and just, honestly, coming together. I feel like if we can come together and fight the battles together, I think we can be something really special.”
By the time things kick off in Orlando, it’ll be the completion of a whirlwind 12 months for Williamson, who will turn 20 on July 6. His first summer league game ended with an injury and an earthquake. The start of his season was delayed because of surgery. He hit four 3-pointers in his first game — and just two since. And in the middle of a pandemic, he was named a cover athlete for NBA 2K21.
Now his unconventional Year 1 ends in another unconventional way — playing in Orlando in July and August.
“I’m very fortunate that the NBA was able to do this,” Williamson said. “Because I trust the NBA, that in the bubble, we’re gonna be in a safe environment, protected at best from certain situations and what’s going on. And, it’s crazy man; we’re actually about to go. It’s a lot to process, for sure, but I am excited.”
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