During the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery, the New Orleans Pelicans scored the number one pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. At the time, the decision boiled down to Duke’s Zion Williamson and Murray State’s Ja Morant. The Pelicans seemed set on Williamson from the get-go. A 6’6″, 280-pound forward with the ability for both finesse drives to the basket and rim-rocking dunks was a pretty enticing draw.
When Williamson has played, he’s been incredible. He’s averaging about 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists for his career while shooting over 60% from the field. His skills and popularity have also helped him make two All-Star appearances in just four seasons.
The problem is that Williamson can’t consistently stay healthy. The Pelicans have already paid him a little over $26 million to sit on the bench. And last season, the team offered Williamson a contract worth between $193 million and $231 million over the next five seasons.
That’s a lot of money for someone who’s already missed nearly two-thirds of his team’s games.
Williamson tore his meniscus the preseason before his rookie year and played in only 24 games that season. After a much improved second season, Williamson suffered a Jones fracture in his foot before year three. He ended up undergoing surgery and missing the entire season.
Before this season, the Pelicans thought Williamson could make a full recovery and get back on the court. New Orleans gave their star a five-year rookie max extension worth a minimum of $193 million, or $231 million if Williamson makes an All-NBA team this year.
And for a few months, it looked like Williamson would deliver. He was posting strong numbers while the Pelicans were in a prime position for a solid playoff spot. But right around the new year, Williamson hurt his hamstring.
To date, Williamson has only played in 114 games over four seasons. If he ends up sitting out the rest of this year, he’ll have missed about 63% of his team’s games — nearly two-thirds of possible on-court action.
Complicating the issue for the Pelicans is that all of these injuries are lower-body injuries. Williamson’s large frame puts a lot of pressure on his legs and feet, and it’s possible he may never overcome them.
That means New Orleans has committed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to a player who may never consistently stay on the court. Even for a franchise worth billions, that’s a tough break.