METAIRIE, La. — Zion Williamson didn’t hesitate.
Speaking to the media for the first time since September, the New Orleans Pelicans forward was asked if he’d sign the extension he is eligible for this summer if the team offered one.
“Of course,” Williamson said. “I couldn’t sign it fast enough.”
Williamson is eligible to sign a five-year, $181 million max rookie extension this summer. But after missing all of the 2021-22 season with a right foot fracture, he has played in just 85 games in his three-year career.
Pelicans coach Willie Green said it was nice to hear Williamson say he wants to stay in New Orleans, but he’s focused on the basketball side of things.
“I love that he wants to be here, that he wants to be in the gym, working towards getting healthy, working towards being the best player he can be,” Green said. “We love anyone who wants to be here in New Orleans with this community, with this culture. That’s what we want.”
Williamson called this season a “rough year,” as he wasn’t able to be on the court. In January, he started to rehab in Portland away from the team and didn’t return until early March.
Once he rejoined the team, Williamson said it helped to put him in a “great space.”
“Being around the guys, being in Smoothie King [Center], seeing that playoff environment,” Williamson said. “And the locker room — we have a special locker room. My first two years, it was a good locker room. But this year — I guess maybe it was the playoffs — it was more together.
“Being real, it sucks watching from the sideline. I just want to be out there. Just seeing the potential. We have a lot of great pieces. I’m excited to get out on the court with those guys.”
Williamson started playing 5-on-5 with teammates and coaches late in the season and into New Orleans’ playoff run. While he was never cleared to play actual games, Williamson said Friday he felt he could have but that he decided along with the coaching staff and front office that staying out would be best for him long term.
Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said Williamson is still a few weeks away from the next set of imaging that could ultimately clear him for good.
“And that would be when we crossed the bridge of ‘OK, he can do what he wants to do in terms of getting ready for next season without any limitation,'” Griffin said. “If it’s two-a-days, great. If it’s three-a-days, great. His workload won’t be monitored at that point, we hope.
“And at the same time, we’ve gotten to a point before where we felt confident that was coming. So we have to be realistic in that situation too. So, really, it’s going to be about let’s put him in the best position to succeed physically heading into next season. And I think he’s committed to that based on what he told you today.”
Due to Williamson’s injury history, the Pelicans could look to put protections into the deal much like the Philadelphia 76ers did in October 2017 with center Joel Embiid, who played just 31 games in his third season after missing his first two years because of a foot injury.
When the extension talks do go down, Griffin added that it will be “a challenge.”
“When it’s time to have that, we’ll have it,” Griffin said. “And right now what we’re focused on is him being healthy, and kind of elite condition to play basketball, and we’ll start there. I think once we get to that point, all those conversations get a lot easier.”
Williamson credited Brandon Ingram and Green with the change in the locker room. He also brought up his relationship with CJ McCollum, one that got off to a very public start.
At the All-Star break, during a segment with TNT, McCollum, a week and a half after he was traded to New Orleans, told the crew that he hadn’t spoken to Williamson yet and that he was “going to get to the bottom of it.”
When asked about his relationship with McCollum, Williamson stared directly into the camera.
“Mr. McCollum. That’s just a little payback. Mr. ‘I’m going to get to the bottom of it,'” he said with a big smile. “CJ is a great dude. The short amount of time I have been around him, I’ve learned so much from him. Great teammate. I’m excited to get on the court with him.”
McCollum and Williamson’s relationship has grown, with McCollum telling ESPN last month that the two even have sat next to each other at team dinners and pick each other’s brains for hours.
“Honestly, I was focused on rehabbing around that time,” Williamson said of not speaking to his new teammate right away. “I texted CJ shortly after to apologize about that. Like I said, I was mentally not in a good space. Mr. McCollum, he was cool about it. Like I said, I’m excited to get on the court again.”
For Williamson, the upcoming season will be the first in which he’s been able to go into an NBA year with the same head coach after having Alvin Gentry as a rookie and Stan Van Gundy last season.
He had high praise for Green and said he went up to his coach after the Pelicans’ Game 6 loss eliminated them from the playoffs Thursday night.
“I said, ‘Coach, whatever you need from me, whether it’s getting the team together, anything I can do, I’m there, Coach,'” Williamson said. “We have a special group. Guys are already excited about coming together this offseason.”
Green said that while it was important for the young players on the team to be on the court for the Pelicans’ postseason push, it was also key for Williamson to be around the team while they made it as well.
“It’s important for him to see and feel what it’s like,” Green said. “He was watching the crowds. He saw the atmosphere. To be honest — I told him this — the compassion that we have. I know he wanted to be out there. What he’s going through in terms of recovering from an injury is extremely difficult. I have done it.
“When you’re 21 years old and your season is derailed because you were working on your game, it’s tough to go through. A lot of people say stuff. I try not to listen to it. I tried to have compassion, to have mercy, to have grace. That’s hard to go through. I thought it was great for him and all of our guys to experience what we wanted to experience this season.”