Tempering expectations on Zion Williamson’s availability for rest of 2022-23 season far from worst outcome

Mar 23, 2023 - 9:05 PM
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Photos by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images

You best believe Zion Williamson wants to play basketball again this season. Fans undoubtedly want to see him return to the court. The odds do not favor such an outcome; however, that may not be the worst thing for all parties involved.

Williamson was cleared for on-court activities yesterday and will be re-evaluated in two weeks, per the New Orleans Pelicans PR department.

Willie Green stated after yesterday’s practice that a possibility exists Williamson could immediately step onto the court following the next assessment. So the earliest that Williamson could return to game action is April 5 for a matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Only two regular season games remain after that on the schedule.

That leaves literally almost no margin for any additional snags in his rehab process, especially when considering the Pelicans are not guaranteed to make the playoffs or play-in tournament — and let’s not forget that Williamson is in the early stages of his ramp up.

Williamson received the green light to progress to the next step involving some shooting, some running — having a basketball consistently in his hands again — only days ago. Many more hurdles remain, like running at full speed up and down the court multiple times and playing through all scenarios involving contact.

Based on his previous history of returning more slowly than usual and of the New Orleans organization consistently erring on the side of caution, it feels far likelier that Williamson won’t step onto the court in a few weeks.

The Pelicans, in my opinion, probably would have to make the NBA playoffs, which begin April 15, to have any realistic shot of seeing Williamson in uniform again. As mentioned at the outset, this is not a bad thing because the negatives truly seem to outweigh the positives.

Can you imagine if Zion were to suffer another setback, one potentially far more devastating that brings his availability for next season into question, all to play some minutes in a current campaign that offers little legitimate hope of a deep playoff run?

The momentum was much stronger last March and April and now the Pelicans have to find that magic likely without the services of Jose Alvarado. Don’t underestimate his impact, which unfortunately, is not expected to be felt again this season.

The point guard’s latest MRI results showed “incremental improvement.” Alvarado isn’t scheduled to get re-evaluated again until 2-3 weeks’ time.

Regardless of how this drama unfolds, the Pelicans must continue to ride Jonas Valanciunas while Williamson is out. One of the best chances to extend their season is regularly looking for their gifted offensive center.

“He causes double teams to go down,” Brandon Ingram said in the morning shootaround. “We kind of play 4 on 3 when he makes the best decision out of the double team. He changes the game for us.”

The Pelicans are 15-10 on the season when Valanciunas has topped 16 or more points in a game. He impacts winning when utilizing one of his greatest strengths of scoring the basketball.

Playing consistently through Valanciunas could also offer a better perspective on the roster for next season and beyond.

Since Williamson’s rookie year, there’s existed a high priority of having another paint presence on the roster. The league may be more 3-point happy than ever, but it still behooves teams to look to score often and efficiently inside the lane.

Valanciunas’ role has fluctuated in 2022-23, leading many to question his fit on the team moving forward, but last season he proved his worth and he’s doing so again during this latest stretch of games.

Continuing to give the Trey Murphy’s, Herb Jones’, Naji Marshall’s, Dyson Daniels’ and Kira Lewis’ more minutes and responsibilities could also be a good thing. The collective whole has room for improvement, as witnessed by all the losses since the calendar flipped to 2023.

10 matchups are left, starting with the Charlotte Hornets tonight. Williamson will obviously not play and he may not make another appearance this season. However, plenty of intriguing story lines remain that could have a direct bearing on the future.

Who: New Orleans Pelicans (35-37) vs Charlotte Hornets (23-50)

When: March 23, 7:00 p.m. CT

Where to watch: Bally Sports New Orleans, League Pass

Where to listen: WRNO 99.5

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.

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