There are things I typically look for in the course of writing about a player. His Basketball Reference page, coverage of the last few games he's played, YouTube highlight packages, maybe a long feature that I remember reading several months ago. You want to get in a certain state of mind, absorb the way a player looks on the court, his numbers, the popular thinking that contains him, and in the end you hope to arrive at some insight other people haven't offered yet.
For this column, I checked a couple basic facts and then had to search, because I genuinely was not sure: where is Zion Williamson?
There are not gaps in the reporting on Zion so much as there is a vast blank void with scant bits of information flaked across its face. Last I heard, he was in Portland, rehabbing a broken bone in his right foot. Head Pelicans exec David Griffin claimed in September that Zion got hurt while doing solo drills shortly before Summer League, which means that the surgery to repair the break occurred in early to mid-August. At the time, Griffin spoke as if New Orleans expected Zion to return for the season opener on October 20th, or shortly thereafter. On December 2nd, Zion was scheduled to start participating in five-on-five drills in practice, but the Pels held him out due to soreness in that surgically repaired foot. On December 11th, the organization announced that he had "[undergone] medical imaging which showed a regression in the bone healing of his fifth metatarsal." They shut him down indefinitely.
From there, facts are sparse. Rumors, as ever, of incredible weight gain. A rehab stint in Portland that the Pelicans have approved and are supposed to be supervising, though it's much more likely that Nike-affiliated trainers and sports scientists are running the show. After C.J. McCollum was traded to New Orleans, he couldn't get in contact with Zion directly. He told this to the TNT crew and it became news and then swiftly issued an update that, uh, actually he has now spoken to Zion and everything's great. Here's where I interrogate my own thinking: I would be surprised if Zion were to play for the Pelicans this season, but so much of that is based off snapshots of information, the fumes of popular consensus, a general feeling that he doesn't want to be in New Orleans. Oh, and he wasn't mentioned in an email the Pelicans sent out promoting season ticket packages for next season. Is that a thing? Is it Cause For Alarm or the front office burning its franchise player?
Zion has played 85 games over a little more than two-and-a-half seasons. It's impossible to say he would have featured in more contests if his rights were controlled by a franchise he really liked, or if he were being treated and advised by a different medical staff. Zion pretty obviously wishes that the Knicks had won the lottery in 2019. That Pels staff, though it's been under new management since Griffin took over, has a dismal track record and quarreled with Zion at various points during his rookie year.
It's easy to blame New Orleans—in part because they are definitely not blameless—for Zion's predicament, but there is also something of a smear campaign going on. When Kendrick Perkins, who just bellows the most recent thought somebody else put in his head, is agitating for the Pelicans to be moved to Seattle or Las Vegas, you know that there are unseen interests who want flames stoked. The league office wants pretext to relocate the Pelicans, or Zion's camp wants to minimize his role in his own failures, as he's toiling in a city where professional basketball can't possibly work. (By the way, the Pels have average attendance and slightly below-average TV viewership. They're not the NBA's Tampa Bay Rays.)
Those 85 games point to a fundamental physiology problem that is either beyond Zion Williamson's control, or that he's not doing enough work to mitigate. Certainly, no Pelicans employee has been advising him to get bigger, which he seems to do whenever he's away from the team for a while. He clearly needs to try to play at a lighter weight than he has been, lessening the strain on that surgically repaired foot and all the other groaning sinew in his lower body. If that robs him of his unique blend of power and fluidity, that's the necessary cost of keeping him upright. If he can't play at something in the neighborhood of 260 pounds, then maybe it's impossible for him to play for any extended period of time.
The reason we care about any of this is that over 85 games, Zion has been sensational. He came into the league a physical freak that college players couldn't handle and almost immediately it became apparent that 30-year-old pros didn't know what to do with him either. And now he's something between a myth and a punchline. All that can be said is speculative, ill-informed simply by dint of there not being much available knowledge. Now that Ben Simmons is starting to settle in Brooklyn, Zion is the NBA's Bigfoot or Brando. While he's in this unresolved state, there is not a lot to say, and yet so much that we would like to.