NEW ORLEANS – What a difference a year makes. Last year, on July 6, his 21st birthday, Zion Williamson discovered he had broken his right foot, an injury that cost him the 2021-22 season. This year, on July 6, his 22nd birthday, the New Orleans Pelicans forward put ink to paper and signed his designated rookie maximum five-year extension that could be worth up to $231. millions of dollars.
Asked about the rankings for this anniversary, Williamson smiled and patted Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin on the shoulder. “Number one,” he said.
Williamson signed the extension in front of about 80 kids attending her six-week summer camp at a local YMCA. Williamson sat at a table with his parents, Lee and Sharonda Anderson, seated next to him and his little brother, Noah – who attends camp – standing to his right. The majority of the camp kids surrounded the table when Williamson signed the deal. As he put the cap on the pen, Williamson looked up and said, “I’m locked up, baby.”
Williamson’s deal is worth $193 million over five years and could increase to $231 million if he meets the escalation clauses of the deal by creating an All-NBA team next season. Griffin said at the post-signing press conference that Williamson’s deal did not include a player option at the end. When Brandon Ingram signed his five-year contract with New Orleans after the 2019-20 season, he also signed a five-year contract with no options.
“Zion wanted to make the same level of commitment to this organization,” Griffin said. “He wasn’t looking for a way out. He was looking for a way to stay. His family was looking for a way to be more involved in the community, and you see that here today. It’s a human thing.” When Williamson spoke to the media, he explained how he was shaken by not being able to appear in court last season.
“I want to thank my family. I want to thank the YMCA. I want to thank the city of New Orleans, especially Ms. Benson. Thank you all for believing in me,” Williamson said. “I’m just giving a kid like me a chance to show my ability and hopefully help the team win more championships. Thank you all for sticking with me last year.
“On my birthday last year I found out I broke my foot. I was away all year. It was a tough year. For the Pelicans to come and give me that birthday present , I’m not going to let them down. I “I’m not going to let my family down. I’m not going to let the city down. And most importantly, I’m not going to let myself down.”
Williamson said the past few months have been a “roller coaster of emotions” for him and his family. As discussions revolved around Williamson’s desire to be in New Orleans long-term, he said it was his family that began to take the brunt of it.
“At the start of the season, I said to the world, ‘If you ever want to know if I want to be here.’ Instead of me wondering, the world just ran with stories,” Williamson said. “So when my family went public about why we don’t like New Orleans, why we don’t want to be here when we really don’t. I couldn’t play because my foot was broken. So it sucked. Every time I checked my phone it was always negative. Even when you try to make it positive it was very difficult.
Williamson was officially cleared to return to full basketball activity on May 26. Now the focus is on preparing for the 2022-23 season, a season in which Williamson wants to prove more than just that he is healthy again.
“I want to prove that I’m a winner,” Williamson said. “It’s as simple as that. I want to win with the coach. As well as with my teammates. The ultimate goal is to win the championship. I feel like that’s what we’re all looking for. Like Griff said, we’re hungry. You all saw last year what the team did and I’m delighted to add to that.”
Williamson credited Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, as well as the Pelicans staff, with helping him work on things to improve his longevity. He said he thought he was in a “great situation” overall.
When Williamson returns to the field, the team will be very different from the one he last played with on May 4, 2021. McCollum is just one of the new additions along with center Jonas Valanciunas, forward Larry Nance Jr., guard Devonte’ Graham as well as sophomores Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III and Jose Alvarado and 2022 draft pick Dyson Daniels.
It was the core of that group that led New Orleans to last season’s qualifying tournament and the first round of the playoffs as the No. 8 seed who lost to the Phoenix Suns in six games at the first round. New Orleans accomplished that under first-year coach Willie Green, who was thrilled to finally be able to coach Williamson on the field next season.
“Well, Zion is a big part of what we do or what we want to accomplish, and he’s not necessarily the one that fits in. He can do that with any team in the league. He it’s about maximizing the squad that we have when we add it to that,” Green said. “Frankly, I think it’s going to be scary for the rest of the NBA. Now we will have to work there. What groups play well together? How can we take advantage of different offsets? How can we put all of our guys on the floor and give them an opportunity to succeed? It takes work. But everything falls into place at some point during the season, and when it does, I think we can be a scary team.