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Pelicans’ Zion Williamson in a ‘mental battle’ to play again

Pelicans’ Zion Williamson in a ‘mental battle’ to play again

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — All-Star forward Zion Williamson said he won’t return to the New Orleans Pelicans’ lineup until he’s confident his body will respond well to the way he wants to play.

“Physically, I’m fine,” Williamson, who injured his right hamstring in early January, said Tuesday. “Now it’s just a matter of when I feel like Zion.

“I can pretty much do everything, but it’s just a matter of the level that I was playing at before my hamstring,” Williamson continued. “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 sideline supporting them more, because I know myself. If I was to go out there, I would be in my head. I would hesitate on certain moves and it could affect the game.”

Williamson’s extended absence looms particularly large now, with New Orleans hosting Oklahoma City in a do-or-die, Western Conference play-in game on Wednesday night. The loser is done for the season while the winner survives to play at least once more on Friday night for the right to enter the first-round of the playoffs as the conference’s eighth seed — and face top-seeded Denver.

Williamson said he has to overcome “a little bit of a mental battle” because of a setback in his recovery that prevented him from participating in the All-Star Game.

“When I reaggravated it back in February, it was tough. So, when I got to make certain moves, there is that hesitation,” Williamson said. “I understand the magnitude of these games coming up and I don’t want to be out there hesitating or doing something that may affect my team in a bad way.”

Williamson’s anxiety about re-injury is understandable, given how his first four NBA seasons have gone since he was selected first overall out of Duke in the 2019 NBA draft.

He played in just 24 games as a rookie, mostly because of a left knee injury. He missed all of his third season because of a broken right foot and played in just 29 games during the 2022-23 regular season.

The only time he’s appeared in as many as 30 games was his second season, when he played in 61.

When available, the 6-foot-6, 280-pound Williamson has been among the most productive players in the NBA, averaging nearly 26 points and seven rebounds in 114 career games. He can handle the ball and run the floor like a guard or wing player, soar to the hoop for rim-rattling dunks and muscle his way into shooting positions from the post — often hitting off-balance, short-range shots between multiple defenders.

The Pelicans missed the playoffs during Williamson’s first two seasons. When they finally made it last season, he could only cheer on his teammates from the sideline. The promise the club showed late last season gave Williamson enough confidence in the club’s future to sign a rookie max extension worth close to $200 million during the next five seasons.

Now another postseason has arrived, and Williamson is again unavailable to play — for now. Williamson said the decision on his return is not his alone and will be made in concert with the team. On Friday, Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said Williamson would not likely be ready to play until some time during the first round of the playoffs at the earliest — and there’s no guarantee New Orleans will make it that far.

Meanwhile, Williamson has had to listen to basketball fans and pundits alike question his commitment to stay in shape and his determination to get back on the court.

“I don’t know how else to say it. It just sucks. I love this game,” Williamson said. “For those people that think that I just want to sit on the sideline just to sit over there, I don’t know why people think that.

“From my perspective, I just want to play basketball. I want to hoop. I want to play the game I love,” Williamson continued. “But the reality of it is, whether I check my phone or I’m just watching TV, no matter what it is, I can’t really escape what the world thinks, what people’s opinions are. So, it’s frustrating.”

Williamson said his series of long absences from the court have taught him that “nothing’s really guaranteed.”

“If it’s in God’s plan to be who I feel like I should be, then it’s in his plan,” Williamson said. “If not, then you’ve got to live with it.”

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