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Zion Williamson picks max extension with Pelicans over nuclear option

Zion Williamson, left, signed a five-year maximum rookie extension with the New Orleans Pelicans after appearing in just 85 games over his first three seasons combined. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

When it came time to sign on the dotted line, Zion Williamson wasn’t a flight risk after all.

The New Orleans Pelicans agreed to sign Williamson, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft out of Duke, to a five-year maximum rookie extension worth at least $193 million, a person with knowledge of the deal confirmed Saturday. The Athletic and ESPN first reported the agreement, which will rise to $231 million if Williamson fulfills the NBA’s supermax criteria by earning all-NBA honors or being named MVP or defensive player of the year next season.

This was an undramatic conclusion to years of speculation that the former high school phenom might try to angle his way out of New Orleans, one of the NBA’s smallest markets. After missing the entire 2021-22 season with a foot injury, Williamson prioritized the security of a long-term contract over a more radical strategy that would have enabled him to become an unrestricted free agent in July 2024.

The 21-year-old joined fellow 2019 lottery picks Ja Morant and Darius Garland in inking five-year maximum rookie extensions during the first 48 hours of the NBA’s free agency period, which opened Thursday. RJ Barrett and Tyler Herro are among the notable 2019 picks still waiting to sign lucrative extensions.

New Orleans has worked diligently to build itself into a winner around Williamson, whose 2019 arrival came shortly after Anthony Davis forced his way to the Los Angeles Lakers in a blockbuster trade. Injuries limited the highflying Williamson to 24 games in his rookie campaign, but he returned in 2020-21 to earn all-star honors by averaging 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

With Williamson’s paint scoring and partnership with all-star forward Brandon Ingram as their foundation, the Pelicans executed trades for veterans, including CJ McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas and Larry Nance Jr. New Orleans also found productive players in the draft, namely Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado and Trey Murphy III.

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Although Williamson hasn’t taken the court since May 4, 2021, the new-look Pelicans were a surprise success story last season, shaking off a 1-12 start to make the Western Conference play-in tournament and qualify for the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. There, they pushed the top-seeded Phoenix Suns to six games with Williamson cheering from the sideline.

New Orleans’s impressive push to the finish line, aided by Ingram’s strong play and a deadline deal for McCollum, helped quiet questions about Williamson’s health and desire to remain with the Pelicans.

Entering last season, New Orleans didn’t disclose Williamson’s foot injury until media day, and its initial projection that he would be ready by opening night proved inaccurate. As the season unfolded, Williamson’s timetable was pushed back multiple times, and he reportedly left New Orleans to rehabilitate away from the team.

Given the restrictive nature of the NBA’s rookie contract system, young star players have less leverage than their veteran colleagues. Coveted first-round picks such as Williamson typically sign four-year contracts when they enter the league and then, after their third seasons, sign extensions for up to five additional years, assuming they play up to expectations.

Even if such players don’t sign early extensions, their teams have the right to match any offers made to them after their fourth seasons in restricted free agency. This contract structure typically prevents high-level draft picks from changing teams for between seven and nine years total, depending on the terms of their extensions.

As the NBA’s player empowerment era has unfolded, there were suggestions that a high-profile young star would attempt an end-around. Rather than sign an extension or pursue offers in restricted free agency, a player could sign a one-year qualifying offer covering his fifth season and then become an unrestricted free agent the next summer. This seldom-used path would allow the player to gain leverage in possible trade negotiations with the team that drafted him.

In Williamson’s case, he could have bypassed an extension this summer and instead signed a one-year qualifying offer worth $17.6 million for the 2023-24 season, the first year after his current rookie contract. By doing so, he would have become an unrestricted free agent in 2024, and his representatives could have used that timeline to pressure the Pelicans into trading him either this summer or next to a preferred destination.

Such a sharp-elbowed strategy would be financially risky given the possibility of injury between now and July 2024, but Williamson has off-court endorsement deals with Jordan Brand, Gatorade and other companies to fall back on. And as long as he avoided a catastrophic health setback, he almost certainly still would have been able to command a maximum salary offer in two years.

If Williamson was eager to move markets, taking the qualifying offer was his nuclear option. Older stars have become increasingly aggressive in exerting their power to pick their teams: Davis made his trade request to the Pelicans in 2019 with more than a year to go before his free agency; James Harden pushed his way off the Houston Rockets in 2020 with nearly two years remaining on his contract; and Kevin Durant requested a trade from the Brooklyn Nets last week with four years left on his deal.

Ultimately, though, Williamson’s lingering health concerns and the Pelicans’ progress this season combined to make this a quick and quiet negotiation. That Williamson was able to quickly command a maximum extension despite playing just 85 games over three seasons is a testament to his immense potential — and to the intense pressure the Pelicans must feel to keep him happy.

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