Feeling ‘at my best,’ recovered Zion Williamson says excitement level ahead of Pelicans return ‘through the roof’

NEW ORLEANS — Zion Williamson is a Lamborghini and needs to treat his body as such.

That was New Orleans Pelicans forward Larry Nance’s message to his star teammate as Williamson prepares to return to the court for the 2022-23 season after a long injury layoff.

“You don’t put the cheapest gas in a Lambo, you know?” Nance said at Pelicans media day on Monday. “You go to the pump and you put the 93 to 95, whatever that is, you put that in there because you don’t want to be on the highway driving and hear your engine. No, you don’t want that.”

Williamson missed all of last season with a broken right foot. A year ago at Pelicans media day, the team announced the injury and it seemed like Williamson wouldn’t miss much of the regular season if any games at all. Instead, Williamson suffered numerous setbacks and was never able to step foot on the court.

This year’s media day was different, however. Williamson was all smiles all day.

“I feel like I’m at my best right now,” Williamson said. “I feel like I’m moving faster, jumping higher. I feel great.”

Williamson hasn’t played in an NBA game since May 4, 2021, when he suffered a fractured finger that prematurely ended the 2020-21 season.

“That’s a long time without playing a game, but my excitement level is through the roof,” Williamson said. “I’m just ready to get back on the court.”

Since then, he’s hired a personal strength and conditioning coach and hired a chef as part of the steps he’s taken to get his body ready to get back on the court. Williamson spent some of the last month in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, preparing for the season.

“I’ve always been a closed-off guy. It’s just how I am,” Williamson said. “That’s how I was as a kid, but finding that team, putting it together, work didn’t feel like work. It was having fun and just doing what I love. The process when I was in Fort Lauderdale was that you were getting up early, but after like a week and a half of it, it didn’t even feel like getting up at 4:30 or 5. It didn’t feel like that. No, it just felt like I’m just about to go to the gym, put in some work.”

Williamson said he listened to veterans such as Nance, CJ McCollum and Garrett Temple about how he should take care of his body. Williamson recalled some moments from this summer when he knew their advice — along with the work he was putting in — was paying off.

“It’s one of those feelings where I’m in the gym and something happens and I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I can really do that. Oh, that’s different,'” Williamson said. “But I learned a lot from a nutrition standpoint, from a working-out standpoint, how long I need to be in the gym and the most efficient way to work out.”

When asked if there was a specific moment that he knew he was back, Williamson smiled and said, “I can’t share that moment yet.”

Now Williamson’s focus can shift to this season and trying to help a team that made a late playoff push. The Pelicans started 3-16 last season but finished 33-30 to make the play-in tournament, in which they won games against the San Antonio Spurs and LA Clippers to earn the eighth seed.

The Pelicans kept that group mostly intact from last season and now get to add Williamson, a player who averaged 27 points and 7.2 rebounds on 61.1% shooting in 2020-21.

Pelicans coach Willie Green will be tasked with getting Williamson to fit back into the flow of the offense this season.

“I go back and watch film, watch some things that work, and then it’s constantly talking with him, talking to the coaching staff and figuring out what works,” Green said. “If it works, we will try to make sure we add it. If it doesn’t, we move on. But it’ll be a progression with Zion and it won’t be a thing where right away we see the Zion that we’re accustomed to seeing. I think it will be a progression based on him missing the time that he missed.”

Williamson played with Brandon Ingram over his first two seasons in the league but has yet to play with McCollum, who was acquired just before the trade deadline in February.

McCollum’s two-year extension, tying him to the Pelicans organization for the next four years, was officially completed on Monday, and with Williamson’s five-year extension kicking in next season and the three years left on Ingram’s deal, the Pelicans feel like their window is open to make a significant push.

“This group is special,” Williamson said. “Training camp is gonna be like my first time like playing intense team basketball with them. So I feel like I’m gonna know a lot more after that, but on paper and from what I’ve seen from the sidelines last year, we really have a special group.”

And while McCollum hasn’t played with Williamson yet, he has played against him and knows exactly what to expect.

“He’s a force to be reckoned with, but I think his production speaks for itself on how consistent he’s been when he’s played,” McCollum said. “I think it’s just him and like two other Hall of Famers that shoot over 60% over 25 points a game.”

McCollum was right. Only three players have averaged at least 25 points per game and shot 60% or better in a single season — Williamson, Charles Barkley and Kevin McHale.

The Pelicans roster that Williamson will head into training camp looks a lot different from the one he played with the last time he suited up. Only Ingram, Jackson Hayes, Kira Lewis Jr., Willy Hernangomez and Naji Marshall remain from that team.

“I think it’s gonna be really easy for me to fit in with my teammates because they play the game the right way,” Williamson said. “Nobody’s selfish. Everybody wants to see each other succeed. Now there are things we are gonna have to learn. Like I’ll have to learn how to play with CJ and BI on the court, learn how to play with Jose [Alvarado]Trey [Murphy]Herb [Jones] because I haven’t played with those guys yet, but from watching the film, it looks like it’s gonna be an easy fit.”

And if Williamson has any other questions about keeping his body in shape, Nance will be there with a reminder: “You don’t put cheap gas in the Lambo,” he said. “You’re a Lambo. Spend that time, spend that energy on keeping yourself on the court, because this team did some fun things without you.”

And this season’s goal is to do even more with Williamson.

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