New Orleans Pelicans should trade Zion Williamson after another injury setback | Marcase

John Marcase
Special to The Town Talk

If New Orleans Pelicans general manager David Griffin could go back in time, I wonder how much life would be easier for him had the ping pong balls of the NBA Lottery bounced a little differently on May 14, 2019.

That was the night the New Orleans Pelicans bucked the odds to win the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

The consensus among fans and most in the media was Duke freshman Zion Williamson should be the top overall pick. Fans of the Pelicans agreed. The franchise sold more than 3,000 season tickets in less than two days after winning the lottery.

All of which put Griffin in a difficult spot as the new general manager. Had the Pelicans not chosen Williamson, it would’ve been a public relations disaster for the already beleaguered franchise best known for having its star players wanting to play anywhere but New Orleans.

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Williamson was already a social media sensation before he entered his lone year at Duke.

ESPN’s glorification of all things Williamson and Duke during the 2018-19 season only added to the hype machine.

The disappointing look on the face of Williamson and his family when the Pelicans won the draft lottery and the New York Knicks did not should have been a major warning sign.

But Griffin would have been run out of New Orleans, or worse, turned into a voodoo doll, had the Pelicans gone with any other player in the draft, such as Murray State’s Ja Morant.

Morant was the anti-Zion. He was not a high school phenom and was discovered by accident, if you call a scholarship to Murray State being discovered. The southwestern Kentucky school was one of the few Division I scholarship offers Morant received. Yet, by his junior season, he was one of the top players in college, a consensus All-American and perhaps the best talent available in the 2019 draft. Memphis, selecting second, took Morant after the Pelican grabbed Williamson.

Since then, Morant has played in 149 games and is averaging 19.2 points and 7.3 assists. His scoring average has increased each season and he was averaging a career-high 24.1 points this season before suffering a knee injury a couple of weeks ago. He should return to action in January for the Grizzlies.

Williamson recently passed a milestone of sorts for the Pelicans. He has missed more games (87) than he has played (85) in his NBA career. And there is no sign of his return to the court anytime soon.

It was only during the Pelicans’ media day in September that the team shared the news Williamson had suffered an off-season foot injury and had surgery. He has yet to play a game this season, and with news in recent days that he has suffered a setback in his recovery, there is a good chance Williamson may not play a game this season.

A knee injury and the COVID-19 pandemic limited Williamson to 24 games as a rookie. Last season, he averaged 27 points a game in playing 61 of a possible 72 games. But, comments he made after New Orleans’ lone game against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden were ominous.

“I mean, New York is the mecca of basketball,” Williamson said. “I love playing here. I played here in college. This is my first time playing in the pros. I mean, this atmosphere — whether they're cheering for you, whether they're booing for you, it's amazing.

“Honestly, I think, outside of New Orleans, obviously, I think this might be my favorite place to play. I can't lie to you.”

Mind you, less than 2,000 people were in attendance due to strict COVID-19 regulations at the time in New York.

Williamson is tied to New Orleans for at least two more seasons. But, as we’ve seen repeatedly in the NBA, all power rests with the players.

There has been little to indicate Williamson really wants to play for the Pelicans, even though the team has done everything possible to appease him, including jettisoning Stan Van Gundy as coach after one season.

Like Baron Davis, Chris Paul and Anthony Davis before him, time is running low on Williamson's Pelicans career.

The sooner Griffin and the Pelicans admit that the sooner they can trade Williamson and get on with building a franchise around players who might actually want to play in New Orleans.

John Marcase is a former assistant managing editor and sports editor of The Town Talk. He writes a weekly column.