The return of the NBA last week also meant the return of one Zion Williamson, the most exciting player to watch in a league full of them. And that's despite playing in less than half a season's worth of games thus far in his career. It therefore came as a bit of a disappointment on Thursday night, when Zion played only 15 minutes and didn't see the court down the stretch of a one-possession game. This isn't that big of a surprise. Everyone knows the New Orleans Pelicans are going to be as careful as possible with their young star, and the preferred method of load management is playing Zion in bursts, as Pelicans writer Will Guillory told The Big Lead before the restart.
New Orleans religiously sticking to that method despite needing to win most of the seeding games to have a shot at the playoffs is raising some red flags, though. Brian Windhorst tackled the topic on Monday's Hoop Collective podcast, saying while he can't make any assumptions on the matter, Zion is "clearly not in condition" to be playing basketball at the highest level right now. From the 8:50 mark of the pod:
"When you watch him play, he's clearly not in condition to be playing at the highest level... As I've watched them play two games, I don't actually think they probably should have played him at all the way he's playing. In fact, I talked to a scout who said to me, 'He shouldn't be out there right now in the condition he's in.' He said to me, 'He's moving worse than he did in Summer League'... I don't know if that's because he's out of condition or that's because he's got something they're not discussing, but this is one of the things the Pelicans have to deal with. "- Brian Windhorst
As Windhorst points out, Zion is not on the Pelicans' injury report, and the team has given no sign there's a deeper issue here. So what's the deal?
Whatever the problem is, Zion is definitely in worse shape than before the season restarted. He played more than 30 minutes in the eight games before the season was postponed in March. He's played 30 minutes total through two games in the restart, and in an environment where each game is essentially a must-win for the Pelicans. He also hasn't looked as quick or explosive as the last time we saw him.
That can certainly be chalked up to Zion needing longer than most to get back into the swing of things given his lack of experience in every department as a professional. But given his injury history, every little sign is a matter of concern. Hopefully it's not anything more than the aftereffects of a four-month layoff, but with everything we know about Zion, it's tough to call what Windhorst is saying here an overreaction.