Zion Williamson drives baseline vs. San Antonio's LaMarcus Aldridge

Zion Williamson looks forward to ‘fresh start’ in second NBA season

by Jim Eichenhofer

Perhaps the most unusual debut season for a No. 1 overall draft pick in NBA history featured a preseason knee injury that limited Zion Williamson to a total of 24 games, as well as a pandemic that split the 2019-20 campaign into two pieces. Although COVID-19 is still not at the point where the league will be able to conduct a “normal” 2020-21 regular season, Williamson said Wednesday that he’s looking forward to what will hopefully be a less eventful sophomore campaign for him.

“I feel great mentally and physically,” the 20-year-old forward said, addressing media members for the first time since August. “Year 1 was a lot mentally and physically for me. But I needed that experience. It showed me a lot. Now I’m getting ready for Year 2.”

Although Williamson entered the NBA with significant hype – and lived up to lofty expectations when he was in uniform, averaging 22.5 points on 58 percent shooting – he acknowledged that he was sometimes hesitant as a rookie. He was only 18 years old on draft night, entering a league filled with experienced pros.

“I feel like there is a lot of my game that I wasn’t able to showcase last year, due to just trying to fit in with the team, finding my place and trying not to be the rookie to mess up,” the Duke product said. “There was a lot mentally I was trying to process all at once. But starting off fresh this year, we’ve got a lot of new staff and things going on. Hopefully we can come together quicker with that.”

The Pelicans hired Stan Van Gundy as head coach in October and recently ensured Brandon Ingram’s future in the Crescent City by signing the team’s leading scorer to a multi-year contract extension. Williamson and Ingram, 23, form one of the NBA’s most promising forward duos. Asked about his pairing with Ingram, Williamson first referenced Ingram’s deal and what it means long term.

“Before I answer, I want to say congrats to Brandon,” Williamson said. “Brandon was more than deserving of that max contract, (because of) all the extra work he put in, always trying to get better and being a great teammate. I’m glad he’s going to stick around.

“We have a great relationship. Honestly we’re just excited to make some moves and try to win. We want to win together.”

Asked for his initial impressions of Van Gundy, the ’19-20 Rookie of the Year finalist compared the Pelicans’ new sideline boss to two prominent men in Williamson’s life and basketball career – stepfather Lee Anderson and longtime Duke hoops coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“My impressions are great about him,” Williamson said of Van Gundy. “I think he’s a great guy. He’s old school, just like my stepfather and Coach K. I feel like it’s going be something to easily relate with. I’m excited to work with him. I can see his love and passion for the game when he’s showing me even small things within the game.”

After spending the Pelicans’ three-month offseason working out and spending time with family, Williamson is looking forward to being more comfortable in his second NBA season. He was on a minute restriction during a portion of his 24 games as a rookie, but does not anticipate any such limits this season. He indicated Wednesday that he wants to be able to play more freely, both physically and mentally, with one very unique NBA year now behind him.

“Just be a basketball player,” he said of how he wants to approach ’20-21. “Once I feel like I know my teammates and where everyone is going to be, just being a basketball player will allow you to attack from anywhere on the court, get better shots and facilitate.

“I don’t think any player wants (minute or playing) restrictions. I’m hoping Year 2 is going to be a lot different.”

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