Zion Williamson Not Playing Because Of ‘Head Management’ In Must-Win Game For NBA Playoff Contention

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Before the New Orleans Saints won their first playoff game in history on Dec. 30, 2000, then-owner Tom Benson found voodoo priestess Ava Kay Jones. She blessed the Superdome before kickoff and cursed the team’s opponent that day – the St. Louis Rams.

The dome was built on a graveyard, after all, and the team never had a winning season from its birth in 1967 through 1986. The Saints finally reached the NFL Playoffs in 1987, but went winless in four appearances through the 1992 season. The Rams were on the verge of making New Orleans 0-for-5 as they forced a punt with 1:51 left and trailing 31-28 after outscoring the Saints 21-0 over the previous 10 minutes.

Zion Williamson Needs Voodoo Perhaps

But Rams’ returner Az-Zahir Hakim fumbled it to New Orleans at his 10-yard line. And yes, it was his first muff of the season.

“There is a God, after all,” Saints play-by-play artist Jim Henderson proclaimed. Or maybe it was a poltergeist from under the turf. But the Saints won, 31-28.

Miss Jones, New Orleans Pelican star forward Zion Williamson needs you bad now.

New Orleans Pelican Zion Williamson dunks against the Phoenix Suns at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on December 9, 2022. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images.)

Williamson will miss the 221st game of his career Wednesday (counting 6 playoff games last year) when the Pelicans (42-40) host Oklahoma City (40-42) in a play-in opener (9:30 p.m., ESPN) for the NBA Playoffs at the Smoothie King Center. That is located next door to the Superdome and hauntingly close to that cemetery. The winner plays at Minnesota on Friday night with the winner advancing to the real NBA Playoffs.

The Smoothie King Center has been cursed as well as the New Orleans NBA home since 2002. New Orleans (known as the Hornets through 2012 and Pelicans since 2013) has advanced in the playoffs only twice in two decades in 2008 and in 2018. There has been but one division title. And there has been an inability to surround former stars like Chris Paul and Anthony Davis with enough help. In 20 previous seasons, there have been but seven winning campaigns and eight playoffs.

Zion Williamson Arrived As Savior

When Williamson arrived from Duke as the first player picked in the NBA Draft in 2019 with his rare and exciting talent, fans saw him as the Savior. He would be the next Charles Barkley at 6-foot-6 and 284 pounds with behemoth force and a guard’s grace.

But out of a possible 328 regular season games over his first four seasons, his hexed career has seen him play in just 114 because of various injuries. A torn meniscus limited him to 24 games in the 2019-20 season. After playing in 61 games in 2020-21, he missed all of the 2021-22 season with a broken right foot that required multiple surgeries. His 2022-23 season ended on Jan. 2 after 29 games with a right hamstring strain. The Pelicans were 23-13 before Williamson’s injury. They are 19-27 since.

If Zion Plays, You Will Be Entertained

When healthy, Williamson is a budding superstar.

Over his splintered career, he has averaged 25.8 points, 7 rebounds and 3.6 assists through 32 minutes a game. If he had the minimum of 250 games played, he would be second in NBA history in points per minute at .805 (2,941 in 3,650 minutes) behind Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid at .86 (10,718 in 12,524 minutes) and ahead of Dallas’ Luka Doncic at .803 and Michael Jordan at .79.

Too often, though, he seems closer to the disaster that is Ben Simmons than to Sir Charles.

Particularly after Williamson’s comments on Tuesday in New Orleans after a practice.

“I can pretty much do everything,” he told reporters. “But it’s just a matter of the level that I was playing at before my hamstring. I’m just a competitor. I don’t want to go out there and be in my own head and affect the team when I can just be on the sidelines supporting them more.”

The sidelines?

Is Zion Williamson A Budding Head Case?

So, amid Williamson’s litany of injuries, including a knee sprain late in his only season at Duke in 2018-19, now it’s his head, too? Zion hasn’t played enough in any season to concern himself with load management, but he has head management now?

“Little bit of a mental battle,” he called it. “Things have gotten a lot better. Physically, I’m fine.”

Well, if you’re “fine physically,” Zion, you have to play. He should be playing tonight and in the playoffs should the Pelicans get there.

“I would say just the team and myself are being extra cautious, so it doesn’t happen again,” Williamson said. That makes senses.

But the Pels are likely going nowhere far if they do reach the playoffs with our without a rusty Williamson, so all the more reason for Williamson to play. Or, try to play. Don’t go 100 percent. Learn how to play 80 percent. Learn how to limp when you play. Many NBA veterans over the years have done that. Barkley did it in his later years at Phoenix. He barely practiced to save it for the game.

There are always going to be little hurts or even big hurts that have to be managed over an 82-game regular season and the playoffs’ trimester. This is the time to play, Zion, because if you do aggravate your hamstring injury or reinjure it, or hurt something else, you have six months to get over it. If you’re physically fine, you can throw caution to the wind a bit.

Pelicans Should Push Zion Into Playing

And even the worst hamstring injuries, by the way, take about three months to heal from at the worst. It has been three months and two weeks since he hurt his hamstring.

Therein lies the problem, Williamson does not know how to heal and recover from injuries.

“Conditioning is just not there,” NBA reporter Shams Charania of The Athletic said on the Pat McAfee Show on Monday.

“How does Zion, at his age (22), with the medical staff they have, how is it taking three months for a hamstring? I just don’t get it,” Brian Scalabrine said Wednesday on Sirius NBA Radio’s “The Starting Lineup” show. “I just don’t understand why he doesn’t heal. How is your body not healing at 22? What are you not doing to not make your body heal? You’re healing like a 45-year-old man who played pick-up basketball on the side.”

Looking at Williamson’s games played and games missed, he is playing NBA basketball on the side.

Pelicans May Need To Be Tougher on Zion

“How hard is it for you to play? And why does it take so long? Everybody else (except Simmons) heals faster than that,” Scalabrine said. “What is it about his body or his lifestyle that doesn’t allow him to heal?”

Well, he’s clearly not in the right city to keep his weight down, which may be part of the recurring injury issues. Too many fried shrimp po-boys, perhaps? The Pelicans need to clamp down on him.

It is understandable that he is injury shy. He’s had so many in such a short period of time. Remember, when he hurt his knee at Duke, his foot plant ripped his Nike shoe to shreds.

“I know myself,” Williamson said. “If I was to go out there, I WOULD be in my head. I would be in my head a lot. I would make.” He stopped, but he sounded like “mistakes” was the next word.

“I would hesitate on certain moves, and that could affect the game,” he said.

One-Legged Zion Would Make Pelicans Better

Right, you will not be at your best. But Zion Williamson at 80 percent, like Charles Barkley at 80 percent, or Willis Reed with a broken leg, is better than no Zion, Charles or Willis. Zion is too worried about a re-injury to understand that. On one leg, he makes the Pelicans better. He is that good.

“If I feel like Zion, I’ll be out there,” he said.

Playing in the NBA is not about feeling like Superman every night. It’s about managing how you feel when it is time to perform and go to work. This is true for everyone.

Zion doesn’t get that yet. And the Pelicans and the new NBA of “load management” are fostering this too soft approach. NBA players used to say while sitting out during the regular season, “If this was the playoffs, I’d be playing.”

Zion doesn’t get that. In fact, looking at his career, if he feels like Zion, he’s probably hurt again.

What Zion needs to learn is Butt Management, as in get your butt out there now for the play-ins, which in New Orleans is the playoffs.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau joined OutKick as an SEC columnist in September of 2021 after covering LSU and the Saints for 17 years at USA TODAY Louisiana. He has been a national columnist/feature writer since the summer of 2022, covering college football, basketball and baseball with some NFL, NBA, MLB, TV and Movies and general assignment, including hot dog taste tests.

A New Orleans native and Mizzou graduate, he has consistently won Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) and Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) awards since covering Alabama and Auburn at the Mobile Press-Register (1993-98) and LSU and the Saints at the Baton Rouge Advocate (1998-2004). In 2021, Guilbeau won an FWAA 1st for a game feature, placed in APSE Beat Writing, Breaking News and Explanatory, and won Beat Writer of the Year from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association (LSWA). He won an FWAA columnist 1st in 2017 and was FWAA's top overall winner in 2016 with 1st in game story, 2nd in columns, and features honorable mention.

Guilbeau completed a book in 2022 about LSU's five-time national champion coach - "Everything Matters In Baseball: The Skip Bertman Story" - that is available at www.acadianhouse.com, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble outlets. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, the former Michelle Millhollon of Thibodaux who previously covered politics for the Baton Rouge Advocate and is a communications director.

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