NBA Season Restart 2019-20

Disney World Diary: Zion WIlliamson's exit a weighty issue for Pelicans, NBA

Standout rookie big man left NBA campus in Orlando on Thursday

ORLANDO — The obvious and compassionate reaction is to respect the man’s privacy. Zion Williamson left the NBA campus Thursday to tend to a family matter. If nothing else in this troubled 2020, we’ve learned that some things are bigger than basketball. File “loved ones” in that category. Nobody will and should fault him for handling his business.

There’s also something else that’s rather obvious: The whole idea of creating a seeded schedule and a play-in format for this NBA restart was done partly if not mostly with Williamson in mind.

In terms of attention and intrigue, LeBron James will own it once the playoffs begin. Until then, all eyes will be fixated on the rookie. Zion is already on first-name basis with the basketball world despite us having only fleeting images of him; blame his early-season injury and the pandemic for that.

And while his 19-game NBA career is only sample-sized so far, he’s been a handful, scoring 20 or more points in 16 of those games. The forceful dunks, energy and impact from Zion became the tease that left us thirsty for more when the season went on hiatus in mid-March. He is made-for-TV theater and the franchise savior that New Orleans prayed for and received.

Your next questions — when will he return, will he miss games and if so how many — are unanswered for now. He’ll need to quarantine for four days if he’s gone less than a week to keep with NBA campus protocol. If he is gone longer than a week, he will still quarantine for four days if he has a negative test for the final seven days he is gone. If he doesn’t have the required testing, he will quarantine for 10 days.

But, first things first.

This much, we do know: There’s a heavy suspicion that the basketball world would rather have Zion playing in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs instead of the Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs or Phoenix Suns. In a sport and league that bled billions this season, Williamson is wide enough, quite literally, to help patch the wound.

Should the Pelicans replace the Grizzlies, the current No. 8 seed, then it’s Zion against LeBron — and the TV networks will barely be able to hide their enthusiasm. It just demonstrates how this league is based and built on star power, more than any other sport. And, when stars are absent, everything suffers. One star can make all the difference in the ratings and standings, and Williamson falls into that category.

His importance is magnified in this restart as the NBA’s network partners are starved for content after a summer of reruns. They’re begging for storylines and drama to recoup lost millions. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Zion and star players like him will save jobs.

Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry and his team are keeping it all in perspective. But if you fed them some truth serum, they’d admit that Zion is the difference between the team staying at Disney for at least an extra few weeks once the games begin or going home.

“We also had a stretch where we won 12 out of 16 without him,” Gentry said Thursday. “Obviously, he’s a great player that we’ll miss, but the one thing that we’ve always talked about, even when we went through the tough times, is that next man up. We’re a good team. We’re a deep team. That’s the one thing that we are, we’re a very deep team, so we’ll have guys that’ll step in and play, and we’ll have guys that will have upped their game a little bit more, but obviously, right now, we’re not concerned about the basketball part for him. We’re concerned about his family.”

While the rest of us are either stuck in our rooms serving out quarantine periods or trapped on the Disney campus, everyone has taken notice of one who just left. Until he returns, Zion will be missed even though he was hardly here. Pretty much like his rookie season to this point.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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