The New Orleans Pelicans will be in a win-or-go home situation on Wednesday as they play host to the Thunder in the 9-10 play-in eliminator in the West, but they’ll have to navigate that game and a possible Friday play-in game for the 8-seed without Zion Williamson.
Their young star forward has been out for more than half of the season with a hamstring injury that he aggravated prior to the All-Star break, extending his absence for the entire second half of the season. As the playoffs get set to arrive, Williamson is healed physically, but is not ready to return to play because of the mental hurdles still in his way. As he explained to reporters on Tuesday, he’s not yet ready to play with the decisiveness and explosiveness that makes him an unstoppable force going to the rim, and if he can’t play like Zion, he feels he’s more of a hindrance than a help to his team.
“I can pretty much do everything,” Williamson said. “It’s just a matter of the level that I was playing at before my hamstring. I’m just a competitor. I don’t want to go out there and be in my own head and affect the team. I can just be on the sidelines supporting them more. I know myself, if I was to go out there, I would be in my head a lot. I would hesitate on certain moves and that could affect the game.”
This is a part of injury recovery that often gets overlooked by fans, but trusting that you won’t aggravate the injury — especially for something as fickle as a hamstring when you’ve already aggravated it once and had to shut things down — is very difficult. Williamson is dealing with that struggle now, and the Pelicans seem willing to give him that space he needs, also understanding they want Zion to be able to play like himself when he’s out there.
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On Friday, David Griffin explained the Pelicans dealt with a similar situation with Brandon Ingram, who has come back from an injury of his own to play at an incredibly high level of late. His confidence in his body is a big reason he can do so, and as such New Orleans is well aware of the importance for Zion to get to that point as well, via NOLA.com.
“It’s more of like a hesitancy,” Griffin said. “I think we went though this before with Brandon Ingram. He said, ‘When I feel like me, I’ll play.’ You can see when someone is trusting it and confident. He’s not in that space right now.”
Williamson, who has been open about the mental toll of injury rehab in the past, reiterated the difficulty of this most recent stretch where he’s been off the court, noting that he would love nothing more than rejoining the team and getting to play basketball again.
“Sh*t sucks. I don’t know how else to say it. I love this game. I say it over and over,” Williamson said. “For those people that think I want to sit on the sidelines just to sit there, I don’t know why people think that. It sucks. I just want to be playing basketball. For real.”
Unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of a tangible checklist of things for Zion to go through before he returns to play. As he explained, it’s just a matter of when he feels like himself again and has that confidence to do all the things on the court without hesitation. Until he reaches that point, the Pelicans will have to try to go on another miracle run from the 9-10 game without him, as they did reaching the first round a year ago.