“Me and my team are going to look for what’s best for me and my future,” Williamson said Wednesday, addressing the media for the first time since his return. “Being safe. But if you know me, I want to hoop. That’s just how I am. I’m never going to change. … I was gone for seven or eight days with an urgent family matter, then I had to sit in a room for four days. NBA isn’t something you can just jump straight into.”
Williamson was tight-lipped about the cause of his bubble exit but said that he was in a “great spot physically” and felt capable of “playing the whole game if I have to.”
“I’m not going to dive too deep into that,” he said. “I talked it over with my parents, my family, and we felt like it was best for me to come back. … It was an emergency. God first and family. Basketball wasn’t really there. I was dealing with something serious.”
Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry told reporters that Williamson did not participate in full-contact action Tuesday and that the team’s Wednesday practice was “easy.” During the portion of Tuesday’s practice open to the media, Williamson shot jumpers, joked with his teammates and went through dribbling drills.
“He practiced some,” Gentry said Wednesday. “We didn’t do a whole lot today. He participated in the practice and did some things. I’ll leave [the decision] to the medical staff. As a coach, you want him out there as much as you can possibly have him out there.”
Plenty is riding on Williamson’s availability for the Pelicans, the NBA and the league’s television partners.
New Orleans enters the restart with a 28-36 record, 3½ games out of the playoffs and in a tight race to force a play-in game for the Western Conference’s eighth seed. With Williamson on the court, the Pelicans went 10-9. Without him, they went 18-27. He averaged 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 19 appearances after missing the first three months of the season following knee surgery in October.
“Our whole goal when we started the season was to make the playoffs,” Gentry said Tuesday. “We went through a stretch where we lost 13 consecutive games. We stayed together, and we said we still felt like we have the opportunity to make a run at the playoffs. When we got Zion [back in January], it was a big lift for us. Our goal is to make the playoffs, but we’re not going to do anything ridiculous or make crazy decisions based off of trying to make a playoff run. We know we have a bright future, so we won’t risk anything based on that.”
Williamson’s immense popularity was a key factor in the NBA’s decision to expand the field for its restart from 16 teams to 22. The larger format put the NBA in position to air six of the Pelicans’ first seven games on national television, including Thursday’s opener on TNT and a Saturday date with the Los Angeles Clippers on ESPN.
During a season that saw sagging television ratings and the abrupt shutdown because of the novel coronavirus in March, inviting Williamson and the Pelicans to the bubble helped compensate for the absences of other top stars, including Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. After months of pent-up anticipation, Williamson made his debut Jan. 11 against the San Antonio Spurs, drawing 2.7 million viewers on ESPN.
Gentry insisted that the Pelicans don’t feel pressure, internally or externally, to play Williamson, who hasn’t participated in a full practice in nearly two weeks.
“He’s a very mature kid,” Gentry said Wednesday. “He’s a 20-year-old kid. A lot of times we forget about that, as we did with LeBron [James]. These guys are still kids. We’ve got to be a little bit careful adding all these extra things on his shoulders. He’s here to play, he’s here to have a good time, hopefully he’ll be healthy enough to play and conditioned enough to play. Other than that, we should treat him as a 20-year-old.”
The Pelicans have sought to exercise maximum caution in their handling of Williamson. His return from knee surgery, which sidelined him for the opening night of the 2019-20 season, took longer than initially expected, and he was kept to a tight minutes limit during his exceptional debut.
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