Williamson’s setback is a tough blow for the Pelicans and the league as a whole. Not since LeBron James has the NBA seen a rookie with Williamson’s mix of athleticism, charisma and hype, and the NBA took every possible measure to capitalize on the excitement. The small-market Pelicans are scheduled to appear on national television for five of their first seven games, including a pair of high-profile opening week showcases: a Tuesday visit to the Toronto Raptors for ring night on TNT before a Friday showdown with Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks on ESPN.
Given the estimated timetable for his return, Williamson is projected to miss at least the first 20 games of the regular season and return sometime in early to mid-December. All told, 11 of the Pelicans’ first 20 games were scheduled to be aired nationally by TNT, ESPN or NBA TV, including Anthony Davis’s return trip to New Orleans with the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 27. Under Williamson’s current timetable, he is expected to be available when the Pelicans visit the Denver Nuggets as part of the NBA’s annual Christmas Day quintuple-header.
Williamson dazzled in the first four games of New Orleans’s 5-0 run through its preseason schedule, averaging 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds while turning in standout offensive showings against the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. The Pelicans elected to sit him for Friday’s win over the New York Knicks after initial testing revealed the knee injury.
“He’s a smart enough player that, whenever he comes back, he’s going to be fine,” Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry said of Williamson on Friday, before the full extent of his injury was public. “I don’t see him falling behind. He’s very mature for a 19-year-old. He’s a great team guy. … He’s fine [mentally]. He’s not dead, guys. He’s upbeat. He has fun. He’s living his dream.”
After a one-and-done year at Duke, Williamson was widely regarded as the favorite to win 2020 rookie of the year honors despite injury concerns. In February, he sprained his right knee while blowing out his Nike sneaker during a home loss to North Carolina. In July, he suffered a minor injury to his left knee while making his Las Vegas Summer League debut for the Pelicans. Williamson should still be considered a strong rookie of the year contender, although a loftier goal such as an all-star appearance may now be out of reach.
Williamson is not the first recent top draft pick to suffer a significant injury before making his NBA debut. Greg Oden, the 2007 No. 1 pick, missed his entire rookie season with a right knee injury. Blake Griffin, the top selection in 2009, missed his entire rookie season with a left knee injury. Ben Simmons, the 2016 No. 1 pick, sat out his first season with a right foot injury.