As his teammates and coaches slowly shuffled into the tunnel following the play-in tournament loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Williamson, clad in all black, quietly remained in his seat, staring down at the floor as disappointment filled the air in the Smoothie King Center.
The Pelicans' 2022-23 season was over, and it ended as every season of Williamson's short NBA career has -- with the 2019 No. 1 pick in street clothes watching, unable to help as his team was eliminated.
The Pelicans had been in first place in the Western Conference in December and looked like a team that could make a splash in the playoffs. Now they wouldn't even get that far. A team that tumbled down the standings in January couldn't hold off the Thunder in a do-or-die game in mid-April, removing any chance of a possible Williamson comeback in a first-round playoff series.
Whether that comeback would have even happened became a confusing ordeal. The day before the play-in game, Williamson declared himself physically fine but added that he wasn't going to play until "I feel like Zion" again. Two days later, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said Williamson misspoke and he had yet to be cleared for 5-on-5 play.
Both the lack of availability and the lack of clarity around his health have become an all-too-familiar occurrence during Williamson's young NBA career.
In four seasons, he's played in just 114 of a possible 317 games (308 regular-season games, three play-in games and a six-game playoff series in 2022) for New Orleans, none in the postseason. His injury-driven absences have regularly extended far beyond the time frames the team has initially given for potential returns.
In past offseasons, Williamson has trained largely on his own away from New Orleans. This year, things have been different.
"I can tell you Zion Williamson has been in our gym more than he has in his entire career in the offseason," Griffin said last week while speaking to the Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club. "He has been in New Orleans virtually all offseason, which is different."
Multiple sources said Williamson was playing pickup basketball with teammates early in September. Sources also told ESPN that Williamson has been working with trainers to help get his lower body ready for the strenuous 82-game season.
When he's been on the court, Williamson has played like a generational talent, averaging 25.8 points on 60.5% shooting while earning two All-Star nods. The problem is he hasn't been on the court enough. As he begins playing on his five-year, $194 million extension he signed in July 2022, Williamson and the Pelicans are at a crossroads.
Can he finally be healthy enough to lead the roster to a playoff series victory -- something that has happened just once for the franchise in the past 15 seasons? Or does more disappointment lie ahead?
ON FEB. 8, 2022, the Pelicans dealt for CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. from the Portland Trail Blazers. The idea was to build a big three in New Orleans of Williamson, McCollum and Brandon Ingram. The Pelicans have played 119 games since making the trade. Williamson, Ingram and McCollum have played just 10 games together, sharing the court for 172 minutes.
"It was a tough year where your top players don't play over a combined 70 games," McCollum said following the loss to the Thunder. "It's difficult to compete at a high level and sustain a high level when you're missing those players."
Ingram missed 29 consecutive games with a toe injury, and McCollum battled through multiple injuries in the latter half of the season, including a torn UCL in his right thumb and a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
The bench couldn't get its footing as Nance was hampered by a shoulder injury and Jose Alvarado missed the final two months because of a stress fracture in his right leg.
But it was Williamson's right hamstring injury, which kept him out from Jan. 2 through the end of the season, that derailed any momentum the Pelicans had built. They were 23-14 when Williamson suffered the injury, good enough for third in the West at the time. When all was said and done, they were 42-40 and losing to the Thunder in the play-in tournament.
Frustrations mounted inside the locker room and the organization as Williamson's return was delayed. Players, like many, were also waiting for Williamson to return. They understood his importance to their on-court success and were disappointed with the setbacks.
It was clear they understood setbacks were a part of the process, but they too wanted to see Williamson get back to his high-flying, dominant ways.
Williamson would tantalize fans with pregame dunk routines, then return to his familiar spot on the bench, seemingly no closer to a return to game action -- a return that was hampered by multiple setbacks. Publicly, the team remained supportive of Williamson.
"He went up and windmill-dunked pregame. That's not the skill set that makes you capable of playing 5-on-5 basketball," Griffin said after the season. "So for people to now say, 'He chose not to play basketball,' that's nonsense."
Still, Williamson's lack of availability has often extended far beyond what the team has initially projected. Just before the start of his rookie season, Williamson tore his meniscus in his right knee and was supposed to miss six to eight weeks. He didn't make his debut for 13 weeks.
On media day before his third season in 2021, Griffin announced Williamson had suffered a fracture in his right foot during the offseason but the team expected him back for the regular season. When asked, Williamson also said he was going to be back for the regular season.
After multiple setbacks, Williamson missed the entire 2021-22 season, missing out on a possible return in the playoffs after the Pelicans made it through the play-in tournament to earn the No. 8 seed.
In April 2022, before the end of the season, Williamson's stepfather Lee Anderson told "The Jordy Culotta Show," an online show based in Baton Rouge, that he expected Williamson to return that season. That return continued to be delayed, and Williamson didn't make it back on the floor for the first-round series against the Phoenix Suns.
Last season, after hurting the hamstring on Jan. 2, Williamson again had multiple setbacks that pushed his timeline further back before ultimately not making it back for the play-in tournament game against the Thunder.
When Williamson has played with McCollum and Ingram, the Pelicans have excelled in their short time together, averaging 120.9 points per 100 possessions and outscoring opponents by 60 points in 172 minutes.
However, neither Ingram nor Williamson has played more than 62 games in a season in their time together in New Orleans.
During Williamson's rookie season, the two played in 22 games together under coach Alvin Gentry and were plus-74 in 408 minutes together. The following season, under Stan Van Gundy, they were just plus-88 in 59 games played for a total of 1,259 minutes. Williamson missed the entire 2021-22 season but in the 12 games they did share the court a year ago, they were +72 in 241 minutes with Willie Green.
"I'm sure you guys can look at our team and realize that there was a point in the season that we were really good and it was because for the most part we were a healthy team," Green said on April 14. "And then when we weren't, what did we look like?"
WILLIAMSON'S MAX CONTRACT extension, which he signed after missing the entire 2021-22 season, begins this season. However, for a brief moment this summer, it seemed as if it might not begin in New Orleans.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported that there was speculation around the league that the Pelicans would trade Williamson in an attempt to move up in the 2023 NBA draft.
On a number of occasions, including dating back to his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Griffin has said no player on the roster is untouchable. And while Williamson's name was bandied about in rumors, nothing serious was truly discussed with moving him, multiple sources told ESPN.
Williamson remained a Pelican but dealt with off-court drama that kept his name in the headlines. After Williamson announced in June he was expecting his first child, multiple other women called him out online, claiming relationships.
In his first public appearance following the social media posts, Williamson's Zion Williamson Foundation donated $250,000 to the Jefferson Parish school system. During this appearance, while Williamson didn't say anything on the subject, Anderson did, saying, "All I'm gonna say this morning is believe half of what you see and nothing you hear. That's all I'm gonna say. I stand by my son 100%."
There are some around the Pelicans organization that are hoping the embarrassment of the summer will provide extra motivation for the 23-year-old Williamson heading into the new season, multiple sources told ESPN.
Williamson's weight, and its effect on his lower-body injuries, is the biggest reason he hasn't been able to stay on the court. Williamson addressed his struggles with eating healthy to stay in game shape on former NBA player Gilbert Arenas' podcast "Gil's Arena" during summer league in Las Vegas.
"It's hard, man," Williamson said. "I'm 20, 22, have all the money in the world -- well, it feels like all the money in the world. It's hard.
"I'm at that point now, because of certain things, I'm putting back the wisdom around me. I don't want to say older because they get defensive, but I'm putting people around me with wisdom. Put me on game to certain things. And just go from there."
Griffin said last week that he believes Williamson is "doing his part" to improve.
"For us, we have certainly learned over the years what we think works and doesn't work," Griffin said last week. "But a huge part of that is incumbent on him. A huge part of that is, 'Is he willing to do what it takes to be successful?'"
The team has made moves to control what it can, as well. Aaron Nelson, a much-heralded hire when Griffin took over the team's basketball operations in 2019, will not return as the head of the medical staff after being shifted to an advisory role with the performance team. His duties are set to be spread out among a number of staffers while the team searches for a replacement.
"I don't know that philosophically we have made radical changes as much as we have addressed specific needs players have had," Griffin said last week. "We have hired a physical therapist in our organization for the first time. It's not something that historically has been part of the model, I suppose. ... We are still trying to respond to player needs and to be attentive to those changes, what they need to be."
Still, Griffin knows that no matter what the Pelicans do, their success hinges on the health of their stars, led by Williamson.
"I can't tell you whether or not they will be healthy," Griffin said last week. "I have no ability to read that future. But I can tell you in every area we do control, we are doing everything we can to bring that to fruition. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. But if you can be both, you can be special. We feel like we are putting ourselves in a position for that to happen, both on and off the court. That's exciting to us."