Despite stumbling out of the gates this season (losing 12 of
their first 14 games), the Pels were able to right the ship and
advance to the postseason. Over the second half of the 2021-22
campaign, New Orleans finished in the top 10 in both Offensive and
Defensive Efficiency. Their Net Rating of plus-4.7 in the 23 games
played after the All-Star break was tied with the Miami Heat for
the sixth-best mark in the NBA.
After beating both the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles
Clippers in the Play-In Tournament, the Pelicans gave the Phoenix
Suns a battle in the first round of the playoffs before bowing out
in six games.
The addition of CJ McCollum at the trade deadline paid immediate
dividends for New Orleans, as he averaged over 24 points per game
to go along with 5.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.7 made
three-pointers after coming over from Portland. McCollum also
quickly established himself as a team leader on and off the floor.
Jonas Valanciunas is another respected veteran still producing at a
very high level as well.
The rest of the roster is teeming with promising young players.
Brandon Ingram, who is still just 24 years old, was a beast in the
postseason, averaging 27.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists
while shooting over 40% from downtown in the series vs. Phoenix.
The team's three rookies — Herbert Jones, Trey Murphy III and Jose
Alvarado — were all significant contributors too.
Jones exceeded even the loftiest of expectations, immediately
establishing himself as an elite defender. The 35th overall pick in
the 2021 NBA Draft, he led all rookies in total steals with 130 (50
more than Scottie Barnes, who ranked second) and was third in
blocks. According to Basketball-Reference, he is the only rookie in
New Orleans franchise history and just the seventh first-year pro
in league history to tally more than 125 steals and 50 blocks.
Jones' terrific all-around play earned him a spot on the NBA's
All-Rookie Second Team.
Jaxson Hayes, who just celebrated his 22nd birthday last month,
is coming off the best year of his young career. Despite an
up-and-down season with different roles, Devonte' Graham still
And, remarkably, 14 of the 15 players on the Pels roster to end
the season are under contract for at least one more season. The
only free agent on the team is Tony Snell, who didn't log a single
minute for New Orleans in the playoffs.
So, it'll be a stress-free summer for the Pelicans front office,
as they don't have any significant decisions to make this
On the contrary, the Pels have to make one of the most important
determinations in the history of the franchise. As of next month,
Zion Williamson will be eligible to sign a five-year, $181 million
max rookie extension, which could increase by an additional $36
million, all the way up to $217.5 million, if he were to be named
to an All-NBA team next season.
Let's start by recognizing that, dating back to high school,
Williamson has been utterly dominant on both ends of the floor
whenever he's been healthy enough to step foot on a basketball
During his lone season at Duke, Williamson was the consensus
National Player of the Year. He tied for the ACC lead in scoring
with 22.6 points per game, was third in rebounding (8.9 rebounds),
second in steals (2.1) and fifth in blocks (1.8) on average. He
also shot 68.0% from the floor, which led the ACC and was second
nationally. Zion is the only NCAA player ever to average over 20
points a night and tally at least 70 steals and 50 blocks in the
As a rookie in New Orleans, Williamson averaged 22.5 points and
6.3 rebounds per game, and gave glimpses of the enormous potential
he possesses thanks to his almost unimaginable combination of size,
strength and athleticism.
In 2020-21, his age-20 season, Zion averaged a whopping 27.0
points (including over 20 points per game in the paint — the most
since Shaquille O'Neal in 1999-00), 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists,
while shooting over 61% from the floor. In the process, he became
the first player in NBA history to average at least 27 points on
60-plus% shooting for an entire season. Williamson tallied 20 or
more points in 25 straight games, which is the longest streak in
NBA history for a player under 21 years old.
He was named to the 2021 NBA All-Star Game, becoming the 10th
player in league history to earn All-Star recognition before
celebrating his 21st birthday and becoming the fourth-youngest
player in NBA history behind only Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and
Through his first 60 career games, Williamson scored 1,457
points, trailing only Michael Jordan (1,664) for the most in the
last 40 seasons.
So, given this nearly unprecedented production, signing him to a
max contract in order to lock him up immediately is a no-brainer
for New Orleans, right?
While Zion has been unguardable when he's on the floor, his
inability to stay on the court has been a recurring
Since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2019, Williamson has
appeared in just 85 out of a possible 226 games. He missed the
first 44 contests of his rookie season after tearing his meniscus,
dealt with a thumb sprain, a fractured left ring finger and right
knee soreness as a sophomore and sat out the entire
2021-22 season following surgery to repair a broken foot.
Over the last 30 years, the only top pick to play fewer games
over his first three years in the league is former Portland Trail
Blazer big man Greg Oden.
In addition to the injury issues, there have been reports about
Williamson's unhappiness in New Orleans. Yet, when he was asked
back in April if he would agree to sign a max offer from the Pels,
Zion responded: "Of course, I
couldn't sign it fast enough."
However, Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin
acknowledged that contract-extension talks with Williamson would be
"Obviously, that conversation is going to be one that will be a
challenge," Griffin said early last month.
"When it's time to have that, we'll have it. And right now what
we're focused on is him being healthy, and (being in) kind of elite
condition to play basketball, and we'll start there."
Williamson has one year left on his rookie-scale deal, which
will pay him $13.5 million in 2022-23. If Zion and the Pels don't
agree on an extension this offseason, he will be a restricted free
agent next summer. In that scenario, both sides would be carrying
considerable risk. Williamson would be gambling on not having his
future earning power crippled by a career-altering injury, while,
at the same time, the Pels would risk potentially losing a
franchise-altering talent via free agency.
Meeting in the middle probably makes the most sense for both
parties. When discussing the parameters of a compromise, the
agreement between the Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid back in
2017 provides a blueprint.
After sitting out the entirety of his first two NBA seasons due
to a devastating foot injury, Embiid suited up for only 31 games in
his third year. Although Embiid looked fantastic when he was
finally cleared to play, the Sixers were understandably hesitant to
commit massive sums of guaranteed money to the injury-prone big
Thus, that offseason, Philadelphia and Embiid agreed to a
five-year, $148 million extension, but the deal included offset
language that protected the team if the player could not stay
healthy. If Embiid missed 25 or more games or played fewer than
1,650 minutes in any of the final four seasons of the extension,
Philadelphia had the right to waive him and get out of paying the
remaining years of his contract.
As it turned out, Embiid avoided the injury bug and established
himself as one of the league's premier players, finishing second in
MVP voting in each of the past two seasons. Last summer, he inked a
four-year, $196 million supermax pact that will keep him with the
76ers through the 2026-27 season. His entire salary is fully
From what I have been told, the Pelicans, at this point, are not
willing to offer a full five-year guaranteed deal. A lot of it is
flowing down from ownership. Gayle Benson, the owner, is also the
owner of the New Orleans Saints. And I have been told they're going
to take a football-style, Saints-style mentality with this contract
negotiation. They will offer him a huge contract, but will not
guarantee all of it.
It's possible such an approach by the Pels could offend Zion and
lead to a standoff between the two parties. But the alternative
(signing a max deal with no protections) seems like a non-starter
for New Orleans ownership. So, even if the Pels front office were
willing to gamble with the team's cap space, Benson likely wouldn't
be willing to roll the dice.
Again, a compromise appears to be the most reasonable and
plausible outcome. In this scenario, Zion would still bank north of
$90 million if he was unable to stay healthy.
It's difficult to imagine a player who hasn't set foot on an NBA
court during an actual game in over 13 months turning down that
type of payday.
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