Our friend John Wilmes wasn’t accounting for a minutes restriction, an overabundance of care, the Pelicans not being particularly concerned about qualifying for the playoffs, when he wrote that “it is [Zion Williamson] who the league, and everyone who knows the sport, is banking on to let us feel again, if only for the moments that he captivates us, that anything is possible.” The Pels are two-and-a-half games behind the Grizz, whom they beat this past Monday night, for the eighth seed in the West, and though that’s a theoretically surmountable deficit with only five contests left and Jaren Jackson out with a nasty knee injury, they also trail the Blazers and Spurs for that spot. New Orleans’s postseason prospects are grim, but they don’t seem bothered by this—or at least they’re not bothered enough to play their young star, the guy we’re banking on to let us feel again, heavy minutes. For the time being, we might have to shift our emotional investment over to Dame, or LeBron, or Kawhi. Longform Zion is on hold.
“We will be overly cautious,” Alvin Gentry said back in January, when it was announced, not that Zion would be joining the Pels’ rotation any time soon, but that whenever he did, he would do so incrementally. Later that month, the meniscus injury that had sidelined him through the first half of the season presumably healed, he made his NBA debut: an 18-minute, 22-point performance against San Antonio in which he inaugurated the Just Give Zion The Ball Offense, calibrating his rickety yet reliable stroke from deep and getting to the rim, where missed attempts aren’t bricks so much as clumsy self-assists. In the fourth quarter, he put up 17 points in a row, cut the Spurs’ lead to three, and then sat down with five-and-a-half minutes left to play. The Pels proceeded to lose by four.
Zion’s minutes climbed after the Spurs game—he averaged 30 MPG throughout February—but the NBA’s restart has once again triggered overcautiousness from the Pelicans. The big fella’s back on a minutes limit that holds even in the final plays of a close game. Which is basically fine. Ambition is useless without perspective, and the Pelicans are trying to build a championship team around a (fully healthy) Zion years down the line, not wreck the guy’s body chasing broadly meaningless wins while he’s still getting his feet wet. Playoff qualification is a secondary concern, and the Pels’ trepidation levels are such that you get the idea they might be halfway relieved to not have to field questions about, say, how much Zion will play in an elimination game.
Of course, he does have to fully acclimate to the speed and difficult of NBA competition, learn to pace himself throughout the course of a competitive contest, and at some point that’s going to require giving him free rein in ways that will imperil him. He won’t be able to realize his nascent greatness wrapped in cellophane for the next five years. But now is not the next five years—now exists practically outside of time these days—and though there are degrees to be calculated, there’s a certain undeniability about Zion, a “Billie Jean” bassline quality radiating, that makes him figuring the details out feel inevitable. If this sounds ridiculous, well, he’s a ridiculous talent. Provided that improbable frame holds together, he’s going to be awesome—kind of already is, in this short-burst incarnation.
So sure, if you were the steward of that spectacular possibility, you’d be precious with it. Tim Duncan sat out the 2000 playoffs for a 53-win Spurs squad because Gregg Popovich saw what he had coming. Don Nelson did something similar with Dirk Nowitzki in the 2003 Western Conference Semis. Those were, in their time, extraordinary instances of coaches looking out for their young players’ futures. In 2020, rest and careful rehab are commonplace, to the point that it sometimes seems as if teams are in an enlightenment competition, trying to prove that they are the league’s most forward-thinking franchise—long-term success, fresher playoff minutes from your best guys, longer primes, a frictionless sustainability that shimmers into infinity. We’re not totally sure this approach works, but the logic does follow that a player can’t get hurt if they’re not playing, that running your starters into the ground Tom Thibodeau style will wear them out eventually.
This is not the explanation your basketball-starved brain wants to hear. The sensible option is rarely the fun one, and there’s a decent chance the Pelicans are coddling Zion for no reason that will prove out, that he could play 35 minutes per game and not get hurt—or not get hurt in any meaningful way, just a hamstring tweak that will subside in two weeks’ time. It’s possible we are simply being deprived. It’s also possible that five bucks you didn’t spend on a lottery ticket last week would’ve hit; you can still go out and buy yourself hot dog with that money. This NBA restart has plenty to offer, but it’s looking like we’re not going to get to see one of its main pre-playoff attractions in all his splendor. If we can wait for everything else we’re currently waiting for, this should be a cinch. And the wait for an unleashed Zion in 2021 might actually be worth it.