Zion Williamson's Minutes Restriction Only Fails If It Works

Stephen Douglas
San Antonio Spurs v New Orleans Pelicans
San Antonio Spurs v New Orleans Pelicans / Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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Zion Williamson made his NBA debut on Wednesday night. At first it was anticlimatic, then it was briefly electric. Then it was over as Williamson fell victim to the dreaded Minutes Restriction. Alvin Gentry fought to keep him in, but the training staff shared by the Pelicans and Saints shut him down for the night.

Was it the right call? Would a few more minutes have really put him in danger? There is literally no way to tell. You can only second-guess the Pelicans sitting Zion if he remains healthy, which is what everyone wants. If he gets injured while on restriction, he's just injury-prone. If he plays as much as he wants and gets hurt, the team didn't manage his minutes properly.

Do minutes restrictions even work? The most famous case of this is Joel Embiid, who started his NBA career with his body imposing a very strict minutes limit of ZERO for his first two seasons. When he finally made his debut in the 2016-2017 season, he never played 30 minutes. Forty-five games into the season, after playing 31 games, he was shut down. Coming into his second season he was expected to be on another minutes restriction. He disagreed.

Embiid would appear in 127 of 164 regular season games over the next two seasons. He also missed three playoff games. This season he appeared in 31 of the Sixers' first 38 games and has missed eight straight as of this morning.

Then there's Michael Jordan. After playing all 82 games his rookie season, he broke his ankle early in the '85-'86 season. After missing four and a half months, Jordan returned on a heavy minutes restriction, slowly increasing his workload from 13 minutes to 37 minutes over the course of 14 games. About five weeks after he returned from injury, he played 53 minutes in a playoff game against the Boston Celtics. He scored 63 and the Bulls got swept.

Jordan would go on to be one of the sport's greatest ironmen. Over the next 10 full seasons he played, he missed five games total. Embiid considers that a good month.

LeBron James faced the first minutes restriction of his career last season with the Lakers before shutting it down. This year he plays when he can, which has been 42 of 44 games. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard who has been load-managing a bad knee, has missed 11 games this season. He isn't trying to stay healthy, he's trying not to get more injured and he's never played more than 74 games in a season.

Jonas Valančiūnas faced a minutes restriction at the beginning of this season and he's appeared in 41 of the Grizzlies' 44 games this season. Does anyone care outside of Memphis? No.

Is luck real? Because that's what it seems like injuries come down to. Having something awkward happen when you do something for the millionth time in your life. Zion's injury at Duke took place when his shoe exploded. How often is that going to happen? It takes him 188 seconds to score 17 points, but just one second to get injured. The truth, and his career, are probably somewhere in between.

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