April 15, 2023

Zion Williamson not cleared for 5-on-5

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New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said Friday that Zion Williamson, who has been out since Jan. 2 with a right hamstring strain, was not cleared to play 5-on-5 basketball, and that Williamson wasn’t simply choosing not to play in Wednesday’s win-or-go-home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

It was an attempt to clarify statements made by Williamson himself when he said Tuesday that he was physically feeling fine and would return to play “when I feel like Zion” again.

Those comments came the day before the Pelicans’ play-in tournament loss to the Thunder. Prior to that game, Williamson warmed up on the court and finished with several dunks, including a windmill to end his workout.

“He came up here the other day and said ‘physically, I’m fine.’ ‘Physically I’m fine’ means ‘I’m not currently injured,'” Griffin told reporters during the team’s exit interviews. “He wasn’t physically cleared to play basketball. He was playing one-on-none. He went up and windmill-dunked pregame. That’s not the skill set that makes you capable of playing 5-on-5 basketball. So for people to now say, ‘He chose not to play basketball,’ that’s nonsense. That’s not factual. But that’s a way more interesting story than he chose not to play basketball. That’s the truth.”

On April 6, the Pelicans released a statement saying Williamson was going to “continue his rehabilitation and conditioning regimen. The following day, Griffin told reporters there were still metrics in the weight room and on the court that Williamson needed to hit before being cleared to return to action.

“He makes the one misstatement about ‘physically I’m fine.’ Had I been here, I would have clarified it immediately,” Griffin said. “The thing is when you’re going through a rehab process and a player does not report, ‘I’m very comfortable and confident in this movement,’ you don’t go to the next movement. That’s not because he’s not choosing not to play basketball. That’s because a rehab protocol requires a player is comfortable doing the movement he’s doing.

“The miscommunication is very largely our fault. I also think there is a component of this is if we don’t always look for the most sinister outcome, there usually isn’t one.”

Williamson only played in 29 games this season and missed the final 46 games — including the play-in game — because of the hamstring injury. Williamson played in 24 games his rookie season and 61 of 72 during his second year before missing all of his third year because of a broken bone in his right foot.

When asked what needed to change to make Williamson more available, Griffin pointed to a number of factors.

“I wish I could immediately pinpoint the answer. I think a big part is on him,” Griffin said. “I think there is a lot he can do better. And he would, I think, tell you that. I think we need to do a better job examining the whole situation top to bottom a little bit better.

“I think putting him in the best position to succeed is important. And I think his participation is a big part of that.”

Injuries were a big part of the Pelicans’ season even without factoring Williamson into the equation. While the Pelicans were 23-14 when Williamson was injured and third in the West, there were more things to deal with besides that.

Brandon Ingram only played in 45 regular-season games and missed two months with a toe contusion. CJ McCollum played for the final two months with a thumb injury that will require surgery, while also battling a torn labrum for the final two weeks of the season, Griffin said.

Jose Alvarado missed the final 20 games of the season because of a stress reaction in his right tibia, and Larry Nance Jr. dealt with several injuries throughout the year, including a sprained ankle that kept him out of the play-in game.

“What I don’t want is the narrative about our team is, ‘Oh my God, they have to fix the medical situation.’ No, we have to fix a lot of stuff,” Griffin said. “We have to do a whole bunch of things better. That’s just a part of it.

“I really don’t like the conversation being player availability, player availability. It’s also, ‘Let’s do the right things with the players who are available. Let’s get those guys doing the right things every day. And let’s build the right culture where we can be critical of each other in ways we need to be.’ I failed miserably in that. We have to do a better job in a lot of ways.”

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