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Is it time for the Pelicans to seriously consider trading Zion Williamson?

Credit: Zion Williamson

When he actually wears a uniform, Zion Williamson has fascinated the New Orleans Pelicans with his strength, quickness and playmaking. When he has sat on the bench or in the trainer’s room, Williamson has frustrated the Pelicans with his overlapping injuries, delayed recoveries and uncertain timelines.

For better and for worse, the Pelicans have felt tantalized with Williamson during his 4 ½ years in New Orleans. They have felt increasingly encouraged about Williamson’s skills, growth and potential. They have become increasingly discouraged with Williamson’s extensive injuries.

As the NBA offseason approaches with the Draft (June 22) and free agency (June 30), the Pelicans will have to seriously ponder those conflicting thoughts about Williamson’s potential and durability. It should spark a question they initially answered affirmatively without any reservations. Should the Pelicans invest their future in Williamson?

The Pelicans balked at that idea ever since they landed the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. New Orleans selected Williamson at No. 1 even after he sprained his right knee during his freshman season at Duke. The Pelicans stayed patient with Williamson missing the first 44 games of his rookie season while healing a surgically repaired lateral meniscus in his left knee. After Williamson missed the entire 2021-22 campaign while rehabbing his surgically repaired right foot, the Pelicans still rewarded him with a five-year, $193 million rookie max extension.

But with Williamson missing 45 games and the team’s Play-In tournament loss last season while nursing a right hamstring strain, the Pelicans may have to reconsider their original priorities. The reasons have nothing to do with anything about Williamson’s personal life. The reasons have everything to do with Williamson’s availability. And with the NBA Draft featuring a star-studded draft class, this could be the Pelican’s best opportunity to find the best deal in return for Williamson.

That’s not surprising the Pelicans have considered acquiring the No. 2 or No. 3 pick in hopes of drafting G-League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson, as the Athletic reported. David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, has always been opportunistic with roster building. The Pelicans own the Los Angeles Lakers’ picks (2024 or 2025) and the Milwaukee Bucks’ picks (2025, 2027). And Henderson is considered an NBA-ready player with his strong playmaking, athleticism and speed.

To move that high up in the draft, though, the Pelicans likely would need to dangle more than just draft picks. They surely would have to include Williamson or forward Brandon Ingram. If the Pelicans had to choose which one of their two headliners to keep, they would have to choose Ingram. He has become one of the league’s most talented scorers in the post, at the rim and along the perimeter. He has stayed disciplined with his work habits. And though Ingram has suffered his own share of injuries, it hardly compares to the time Williamson has spent in the trainer’s room.

What complicates these developments: the Pelicans have maintained that they have stayed pleased with Williamson’s approach both to his game and to his training.

After initially forecasting that Williamson would miss the first six to eight weeks of his rookie season, the Pelicans extended that time so that Williamson could expand his range of motion, improve his mobility and fix his movement patterns. They then installed minutes restrictions in hopes to ease Williamson’s conditioning and workload.

Williamson stayed mostly healthy in the 2021-22 season only to miss the entire 2020-21 campaign after needing off-season surgery on his right foot. Though Williamson received public criticism for staying away from the team during portions of that seasons, the Pelicans internally defended him. They reasoned that Williamson wanted to fully focus on his rehab and not become a distraction to his teammates.

After Williamson injured his right hamstring last season, the Pelicans maintained that the ailment had nothing to do with his other injuries. They maintained that Williamson has stayed disciplined with his rehab. They praised Williamson for showing on-going improvement with his dieting. And they considered him coachable both on the court and in the trainer’s room. Though Williamson acknowledged a mental hurdle in playing in the Pelicans’ play-in game against Oklahoma City, the Pelicans never cleared hm for any 5-on-5 drills, anyway.

Even if the Pelicans have said that Williamson has shown the right approach with his work habits, attitude and intentions, eventually teams have to evaluate players for their bottom-line results. Regardless of the reasons, Williamson has failed to fulfil the old adage that a players’ best ability is availability.

That doesn’t mean the Pelicans have to trade Williamson just for the sake of avoiding further headaches with his body possibly breaking down again. Should they have the chance of acquiring a top lottery pick in next week’s draft, however, the Pelicans should hardly flinch with parting ways with Williamson. New Orleans may remain fascinated with Williamson’s intriguing upside. But that means very little if Williamson’s entertaining highlight reels continue to get interrupted with monotonous rehab assignments.

Mark Medina is a veteran NBA reporter who will be contributing to Aaron Torres Online and Aaron Torres Media throughout the NBA playoffs - follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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