Zion taking 'no smiles' approach as Pelicans camp ramps up
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — While Zion Williamson posed for portraits, as NBA players typically do on the eve of training camp, photographers asked the New Orleans Pelicans power forward if he'd smile for a few shots.
“No smiles,” Williamson responded.
After four seasons defined largely by disappointment over his long injury-related absences and even ridicule regarding his conditioning and social life, Williamson carried himself like a competitor with, as some teammates termed it, “a chip on his shoulder.”
When asked about his goals for this season, “win,” was his one-word answer.
When asked about a turbulent offseason in which he was criticized on social media by an adult video actress claiming to be a spurned romantic partner, Williamson said, “Things happen. It’s just how you respond to them.”
Williamson's trademark ear-to-ear smile appeared only in fleeting glimpses when cameras were pointed his way.
And when he was interviewed, Williamson kept his answers on the succinct side — a departure from the more jovial and engaging persona he'd cultivated since capturing the imagination of the basketball world as a high school standout in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
In college at Duke in 2018, the joy he took in launching his 6-foot-6, 280-pound frame above rim for thunderous dunks was unmistakable. When the Pelicans made him the NBA's top overall draft choice in 2019, he memorably said, “Let's dance,” while fans at a block party in downtown New Orleans celebrated in a way for which this home of Mardi Gras is known.
Then came the injuries. He played in just 24 games as a rookie because of a torn meniscus in his right knee. He missed all of his third season with a broken foot. Last season, a hamstring injury put him out for the season after he'd played in just 29 games.
New Orleans has made the playoffs just once since drafting Williamson, and it was the one season in which he didn't play at all.
Now, Williamson is entering the first year of a five-year extension that could pay him more than $200 million if he finally fulfills expectations.
And it's not as if he hasn't shown the ability to be a superstar. In the 114 NBA games he has played, he averaged nearly 26 points and seven rebounds, and has done so in a fashion spectacular enough to be named to two All-Star teams.
But during his long absences, his commitment to his health, to his team and to New Orleans have been questioned by fans and analysts alike.
“It’s a little upsetting I have to sit up here and tell people all the time that this is home and this is where I want to be,” Williamson said.
Pelicans coach Willie Green sounded confident that Williamson had processed his difficult summer in a productive way and was in a good frame of mind entering this season.
“He definitely had some moments this summer that he didn’t want to be in the media,” Green said. "Now it's a moment where you own whatever it is, be accountable, and it's time to move forward.
“What I'm learning from him off the floor is that I have to be intentional about our relationship, continue to check in with him. He has to do the same," Green added. "That's the way we can continue to have honest and open discussions and continue to have growth.”
David Griffin, the Pelicans' executive vice president of basketball operations, echoed those sentiments.
“You either take responsibility for your role in things or you don’t — and Zion is learning how to do that,” Griffin said. “We’ve seen lot of evidence to support Zion growing and maturing."
One of the few times Williamson did smile is when he mentioned that his first child, a daughter, is due in November.
But when the subject returned to his profession, his countenance became serious again until moments before his interview session ended.
When asked what aspects of his game he'd been working on lately, he began by asking, “You want me to give a scouting report on myself?”
Then a smirk appeared on his face as he rose from his chair, leaned forward and said, “What I worked on is being un-guardable,” and walked off.
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