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Pelicans' Griffin addresses Williamson's health challenges

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson sits on the bench as teammates pass by after the Pelicans lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in an NBA basketball play-in tournament game in New Orleans, Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Pelicans basketball operations chief David Griffin expressed confidence Friday in team personnel responsible for managing player health after star forward Zion Williamson missed 48 or more games for the third time in his four NBA seasons.

“We’ve got incredibly good people doing it,” Griffin asserted when asked how high his confidence remained in the team training and medical staff. “We’ve got to do a better job of translating those things to availability.”

The Pelicans' season ended Wednesday night with a loss to Oklahoma City in a Western Conference play-in matchup that was also the 46th straight game missed by Williamson since he injured his right hamstring on Jan. 2.

The day before the game, Williamson said he was no longer injured but added that he was not ready to play because he didn't “feel like Zion.

He was ruled out of the lineup for Wednesday's play-in game. Yet, he conducted on-court work during pregame warmups, concluding with a windmill dunk which only spawned more questions about why he could not have been activated.

Griffin sought to answer those questions as he summed up the recently concluded season.

“He wasn’t physically cleared to play,” Griffin said. “He was playing one-on-none. He went up and windmill dunked pregame. That’s not the skill set that makes you capable of playing skilled, five-on-five basketball. He was never cleared to play five-on-five basketball. So, for people to now say, ‘He chose not to play basketball,’ that’s nonsense.

“He was never cleared to even play three-on-three full court," Griffin added.

In three of Williamson's four NBA seasons, he has not played in as many as 30 games. Only in his second season did he play as many as 61 games. He did not play at all in the 2021-22 season because of a foot injury.

Yet the Pelicans signed him to a five-year extension worth between $193 million and $231 million, depending on incentives, that takes effect next season. New Orleans is banking on the potential Williamson has shown in the 114 games in which he has played, averaging nearly 26 points and seven rebounds while hitting 60.5% of his shots, sometimes in spectacular fashion.

Griffin said managing the health of the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Williamson has been a learning process for both the team and player.

“A big part of it is on him,” Griffin said. “There is a lot he can do better. And he would, I think, tell you that. He’s certainly owned up to that.

“We need to do a better job of maybe examining the whole situation top to bottom,” Griffin continued. "We’re not intentionally not doing the right things. So, I think finding a way to put him in the best situation to succeed is important and his participation in that is a big part as well.”

Meanwhile, Griffin praised guard CJ McCollum and forward Larry Nance Jr. for playing through injuries. McCollum needs surgery to repair his right thumb, and Griffin said the veteran guard also finished out the season with a torn labrum in his right (shooting) shoulder. Nance missed time because of a left ankle sprain but returned while still hurting to aid the Pelicans' late-season postseason push.

“CJ and Larry wanted to send a message that this is what you do,” Griffin said, adding that McCollum didn't want his shoulder ailment disclosed before the end of the season because he didn't want to risk any opponents taking “cheap shots” at it.

When Williamson was largely healthy during the first 10 weeks of the season, the Pelicans rose to the top of the Western Conference. After his injury, and with high-scoring wing Brandon Ingram also out, New Orleans plummeted down the standings. Even after Ingram's return, the Pelicans struggled for several games and fell outside the top 10 in the conference.

But as Ingram rounded back into form, New Orleans won nine of its last 12 games to finish as a No. 9 seed.

"In that locker room is the No. 1 seed in the West,” Nance said. “Whether we can get on the court at the same time or not is a different question. But the talent is clearly there. But obviously dependability is the issue.”

Griffin expressed similar sentiments.

“The core and the nucleus of what we have here is very, very good,” Griffin said. “We haven’t seen it play enough minutes together to say, ‘Yes, this is a championship-caliber roster.’"


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Brett Martel, The Associated Press

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