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The Roar



Zion vs Pelicans heavyweight battle could end in tears … or glory, depending on his next move

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23rd December, 2023

The icy relationship between potential superstar Zion Williams and the New Orleans Pelicans is at an extraordinary fork in the road. 

What happens in the next few months could determine whether a franchise with lacklustre history finally becomes an NBA title contender or if Williamson will ever live up to the immense potential that he’s been threatening to unleash since being taken with the No.1 pick four years ago. 

Unlike the franchise’s previous marquee player, Anthony Davis, who grew tired of the small market and yearned for the bright lights of Los Angeles, the problem with Williamson is whether he has the desire to be an MVP contender or whether he’s content with doing just enough to get by.

More specifically, his physical fitness and seeming lack of dedication to being in top shape has set alarm bells ringing in the Big Easy. 

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - NOVEMBER 29: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans shoots a free throw during the fourth quarter of an NBA game at Smoothie King Center on November 29, 2023 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Zion Williamson. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

It’s an uneasy standoff between the star player and the franchise. Nobody is saying anything directly in public but the narrative is building that New Orleans are getting fed up with Williamson not being fit enough to be a game-changer. 

The closest anyone has come to outright saying the 23-year-old forward is lazy was when Pelicans general manager on the eve of this season said “this is the first summer Zion has taken his profession seriously in that regard” when asked about his pre-season conditioning. 

And over the past week, detailed and well-sourced reports emerged in The Athletic that the Pelicans have strict conditions written into his contract surrounding his weight and body fat percentage being under certain limits (a combined 295 in pounds and percentage) and that the final three years of his contract are not guaranteed if he fails to hit benchmarks related to his conditioning and games played. 


Neither camp is commenting about the unique clauses, adding to the tension between player and franchise.

New Orleans are not travelling too badly in sixth spot in the Western Conference with a 17-12 record, they made the semi-finals of the NBA Cup  and Williamson has only missed four matches after playing just 114 across his first four seasons.  

But his per 36-minute numbers are trending down – he’s currently averaging career lows in that regard in points (26), rebounds (6.8) and shooting percentage (57.8%) from a player who rarely takes aim from outside the paint.

And when the Pelicans made a rare foray into the spotlight in the In-Season Tournament semis against LeBron James, Davis and the Lakers, it was nothing short of embarrassing from Williamson. 

He managed a paltry 13 points as the Lakers blew them out of Vegas 133-89, earning a rebuke from Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, two big men who know the value in getting in shape, and how tough it is to compete when you are carrying excess baggage. 


“He’s not in shape. He doesn’t run, he plays the game strictly on talent,” Barkley said. “He never runs on a fastbreak. He’s kind of like jogging on offence and defence. Somebody has got to get a hold of him because he’s got so much talent. He could be special.”

When he was asked if the legendary duo’s comments were a legitimate critique, Williamson seemed unimpressed but not necessarily fired up to prove them wrong.

“If it comes from a great place and a place where they just want to see me do better, thank you. But if it comes from anywhere else, everybody (is) entitled to their own opinion. I can’t control that.”

Shaq was bemused that the penny still hasn’t dropped for the young star. 

“We only criticise people that we like. We only criticise people that we believe in,” he countered. 

“When it comes to being a dominant big man, I am the authority, I am the go-to guy. I sat there and watched him. I said he doesn’t run hard, he doesn’t create easy baskets for himself and it looked like he’s not ready. That was me telling him ‘If you do this, you can get to the next level’.


“If you say something about me and I don’t get mad, that mean I’m not ready. His response is telling me he ain’t ready. I would’ve been like f— Shaq and Charles, watch this for the rest of the season.’ That’s how you respond.”

Barkley added “we want him to be great”. 

Their brand of tough love should be music to the ears of Pelicans executives who have been trying to drum the message into his ears. 

They don’t want to trade the remaining four seasons of his five-year $US197 million deal. They want him to live up to his price tag and earn an even bigged contract with them. 

The Pelicans won the lottery of lotteries twice in the space of the decade when they jagged Williamson and Davis, two of the bluest of blue-chip prospects alongside Victor Wembanyama since LeBron came out of high school in 2003.

In theory they could waive his deal if he doesn’t shape up or trade him, but they would be taking a much less valuable package in return compared to the upside of what Williamson could become. 


If earning $36m a year is not enough for an athlete to get in peak physical shape, then it begs the question – what will ever be that motivation? 

The problem for the franchise that even if Williamson plateaus to be a very good player, which he undoubtedly still is this season, he will still command eight-figure salaries for the rest of his career. 

But does he want to be an MVP? Is he prepared to put in the work to lead this franchise to its first championship like Nikola Jokic did with Denver or like Giannis Antetokounmpo breaking a 50-year drought in Milwaukee? 

Joel Embiid had injury issues his first three years in the NBA but he has grown into an MVP and the way he’s monstering opponents again this season, he’s not only the early favourite to go back-to-back but Philadelphia are again in the title hunt despite James Harden forcing his way out.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 19: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans dribbles against Ben Simmons #10 of the Brooklyn Nets during the first half at Barclays Center on October 19, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Zion Williamson dribbles past Ben Simmons.  (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The Pelicans are actually well placed as far as a top-level supporting cast in Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas, as well as a bunch of young prospects including Boomers guard Dyson Daniels.

They have a bounty of draft picks up their sleeve from the Davis and Jrue Holiday trades to upgrade their roster when the time is right but that can only happen when their franchise cornerstone is hitting his peak. 


Both the player and the franchise are at a crucial point in their respective futures – there is a pathway to a title if everything goes right, which is a claim that most NBA teams can’t legitimately make at any given time., 

But it’s a highly combustible situation and if Williamson doesn’t find the motivation to dominate the league, he will end up being part of the NBA’s long list of “what might have been” prospects who never lived up to their potential.