2022-23 Kia Season Preview

The new Zion Williamson is ready to show the world he’s arrived

It's not money that brings Zion Williamson happiness. It's the game of basketball, which was taken away for 17 months. Now, he's back.


Zion Williamson will return to the floor after missing all of last season due to injury.

NEW ORLEANS — This town is famous for spirits, those sipped nightly on a street called Bourbon, and those that resonate in the many churches, especially one that recently celebrated its 100th year.

That’s how long the congregation has flocked to the red brick building on Third Street and heard the Good Word preached weekly. Back in 1957, the church drew a gathering of Black ministers and leaders and from that, a groundbreaking organization emerged: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The man chosen at the meeting to steer that Civil Rights group through the next turbulent decade was a pastor who arrived from Atlanta — none other than Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, the location of this Baptist church remains unchanged, along with the name: New Zion.

New Zion?

Well, let’s just say a century-old church has something in common with a 22-year-old basketball savior who could use some blessings as he prepares to resume a short career interrupted twice too many times.

“I have something to show the world. I have no limits for myself.”

Zion Williamson

This season, the patient New Orleans basketball community hopes to finally enjoy another New Zion … as in Williamson, a supreme force of basketball nature who has played only 85 of a possible 226 career games, essentially missing a year-plus because of injuries and therefore, will take whatever divine intervention he can get.

The New Zion Baptist Church pastor, C.S. Gordon Jr., whose Sunday sermons are about salvation, was only too willing to do what he does for a citizen in need.

“If I met him, I would tell him that he’s still young,” Gordon said. “And also that many times in our experiences, even before we can arrive at a goal considered victorious, we’re going to have some ups and downs. I noticed he was plagued by injuries but he should treat last year as just a learning experience, and keep in mind that all of his strengths, both physical and mental, come from the Lord.

“It seems as though he has overcome those injuries, am I right?”

Nobody needs 20-20 vision to observe the most obvious newness of Zion. He’s now the after-picture in those fitness magazines. He came to the Pelicans training camp bringing punch, not paunch. This comes as bad news to internet jokesters who were once quick to make the connection between Zion and po’ boys. These days though, after months of cardio and iron, the New Zion does a lot of flexing.

zion williamson flexes

Zion Williamson has worked on making changes to his body this year.

With the decrease in bad weight, the likelihood of an increase in power, speed and quickness seems a good bet. Not that Zion was lacking in all three to begin with, even in his old self. For a player with his unique build and bully-ball instincts, this should only make him more of a handful than what everyone saw in his very limited, but very explosive, time on the floor.

In case you forgot, since last season was a complete wash, based on the evidence and the eye test, Williamson is the most efficient talent the NBA has seen in a while, maybe ever. His career shooting percentage is 60.4%, he doesn’t need to dominate the ball to score 30 points, he punishes taller defenders at the rim and snatches rebounds from their grip. All this at a freaky 6-foot-6 and two hundred whatever-whatever pounds.

“My mind, my body and my heart is right and therefore I’ll be right,” he said, regarding what’s coming next. “I have something to show the world. I have no limits for myself.”

Of course, all the world wants to know is: Can he stay healthy? It’s an odd wonderment about a young man who’s just barely drinking age, about a player who certainly doesn’t look fragile; about a body that carries a lack of basketball mileage and therefore is hardly worn down.

But there’s so much more at stake regarding Williamson’s good health: The direction of the franchise, the continued growth of a team that made the playoffs last season without him and the mental health of a young man who wishes to tell the world this message: “At the end of the day, I’m human.”

Provided he stays healthy, Zion Williamson could be the missing piece for a promising New Orleans squad.

The New Zion smiles more, laughs easily and clowns often. He is fun to be around. He engages and allows others to get to know him and mingles freely. This is refreshing because this hasn’t always been the case. Not that the Old Zion was ever a boor … he just wasn’t around much. Blame the injuries for that and the ensuing frustration began to weigh him down, so to speak.

To recap: Williamson tore his meniscus just before his rookie season, which delayed his debut until late January. He played only 24 games before being shut down. The next season, Zion appeared in 61 of a 72-game NBA season and made the All-Star team. Then, as he prepared for a true breakout in 2021-22, he suffered a fracture in his right foot, and the injury was slow to heal, and the decision to shut him down in the spring was met with the expected fears inside the hoop world, even from the man in the mirror.

“My mind was just saying it wasn’t in God’s plan for me,” he said, at his lowest point. “I had a lot of moments like, ‘Damn, why me?’ I love the game, love to be around the game. I had a few moments when I asked, ‘Am I doing something wrong?’

“It’s rough when you couldn’t get out there with the guys. Game time comes and you’re watching and can’t get out there. That can do a lot for your mentals. I sacrificed a bit of my mentals. That was the world I was in.”

Money’s not bringing me happiness. The game brings me happiness.”

— Zion Williamson on his mental health

He passed the downtime with family and friends when he wasn’t training, which leads to the question about his weight: Did it get out of control, and if so, then why?

His answer made perfect sense:

“I knew last November and December that I needed to change, but it’s tough to change your body when your foot’s broken. There’s nothing I could do. People said I didn’t care about my craft. That hurt. But they were misinformed. My foot’s broken, I can’t run. I can’t do a certain amount of sprints. I’m on limited workout minutes. When I was finally cleared and healthy, I was able to work out and do what I needed to do to prompt changes. And the world is seeing those results, or will very soon.”

There were always mysteries about him that swirled and went unaddressed. Did he like New Orleans? Was he all-in with the franchise? What about the direction of the team — is he good with it?

Williamson answered affirmatively months ago when he accepted the five-year rookie max extension at $193 million, dismissing any wild speculation that he’d become the first No. 1 pick to turn down that pile. But he was going to be wealthy no matter what, no matter where he played in the near future.

“My family was walking around (town) and people were harassing them, saying that I didn’t want to be here,” he said. “That’s the thing that bothered me the most. I signed up for this. They didn’t. Leave them alone. I knew I was going to get nit-picked from a young age, and I’m fine with that. But anybody who knows me knows that New Orleans is home to me. Nobody ever asked me that. They just ran with narratives. I love this team, this city and where we’re at.”


Zion Williamson signed a five-year extension this offseason to remain in New Orleans.

He continued: “I just wanted to be out there. People say, ‘You guys make millions of dollars.’ Well, that’s fine, but when you love the game like I do, you just want to be out there. Money’s not bringing me happiness. The game brings me happiness.”

Williamson bled emotion last spring when the plucky Pelicans, after a 3-16 start, hit an unexpected groove in January, claimed the Play-In game, then turned pugilistic against the defending Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. With Zion in street clothes, Jose Alvarado played phone-booth defense on Chris Paul while Brandon Ingram, rookie Herb Jones and the newly acquired CJ McCollum all had moments in forcing Phoenix to six games.

“That was pure basketball,” Williamson said, “playing like there is no tomorrow. It did a lot for my spirit, seeing Jose going out and fight, Herb becoming The Man and the world finally seeing BI. It was a breath of fresh air. I knew then: We got a good group.”

He said quietly: “I felt if I was out there, maybe I could’ve influenced a few things.”

Well, sure. Williamson is one of only three players (LeBron James and Luka Doncic are the others) to average 27 points per game or more before turning 21. On April 11, 2021, he scored 38 points on 72.7% shooting and then followed it up nine days later with 33 points on 73.7% shooting. His ability to elevate and hang while defenders lose to gravity is what makes him so tremendous in the paint. A ferocious dunker, decent mid-range shooter and good dribbler with a change of speeds, he defies definition.

I don’t think I’ve seen myself this happy and excited about being in a gym in a long time.”

— Zion Williamson on his return

David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive VP of basketball operations, believes he’s been sold short.

“He’s naturally unselfish and his basketball IQ is incredibly high,” Griffin said. “Everyone gets fixated on his athleticism and explosiveness and lose sight that he sees the game like a point guard. His gift for making people better is going to be substantively recognized when we win.”

Based on his gait and brute strength, he is the Paul Bunyan of basketball, and yes, you must use fictional characters to find a match for him.

“He’s such a special and incomparable player,” Pelicans teammate Larry Nance Jr. said. “No one else like him. He’s one of one.”

He is all that.

But will the New Zion be the picture of perfect health?

zion with shirt that says better days

Zion Williamson says this is the happiest he’s been as he prepares for his 4th NBA season.

New Orleans is begging for Zion to remain healthy and happy. Not only will the Pelicans be better off, but so will the NBA. He is a first-name-only player, among a select group of stars who are truly box office, and has a certain magnetism. He checks a lot of boxes in that regard.

He has a score to settle, then. Will he approach this season, which opens Wednesday in Brooklyn (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass), with a sense of anger, feeling like he has been denied and deprived unfairly?

“If you had asked me that right after (last) season, I probably would say yes,” he said. “But after going through the enjoyable summer I went through, this year is about showing the world my true resolve for the game.”

And how does it feel … to feel good about yourself?

He laughs.

“It feels amazing. I don’t think I’ve seen myself this happy and excited about being in a gym in a long time. It’s refreshing.”

And what can we expect?

“I can sit here and say what I’ve been working on. But I have to go out there and show it.”

And there lies the anticipation for the Pelicans, and perhaps the apprehension of the teams on the other bench. Because after all the injuries and the teases, after the body swap, everyone expects to finally witness a New Zion. That much is understood.

But suppose he is new … and improved?

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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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