Duke vs. UNC. A classic rivalry between two North Carolina schools, and two college basketball powerhouses. UNC, lead by the highly touted Coby White and Nassir Little, along with senior sharpshooter Cameron Johnson, were among the top teams in the nation. Duke, with arguably its greatest recruiting class ever, featured standouts R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish, and the most hyped college prospect since Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson.
Fans piled into Cameron Indoor, hoping to watch another great performance that would add to the already massive amount of hype surrounding Williamson.
With former President Barack Obama, Spike Lee and Hall of Fame outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. in attendance, all eyes on were Williamson, with hopes of another highlight-filled performance.
But just 30 seconds into the game, Williamson slipped and, in a freak accident, tore through his Nike PG shoes, injuring his knee. This was a freak accident, an anomaly of an injury, but it has set off a chain of injuries that are already plaguing Williamson’s short NBA career.
It is unclear if Williamson will ever reach his full potential because of injury, and the Pelicans would be wise to manage Williamson similarly to how the Raptors managed Kawhi Leonard, to get the best out of Williamson at the most crucial times.
So, what can Williamson learn from other high-flying athletes, both injury prone and relatively injury-free, and how may learning from the mistakes and successes of others affect the rest of his career?
When the hype around Williamson was at its peak, there were two names that he was consistently being compared to, fairly or unfairly, right or wrong, and those two names were LeBron James and Blake Griffin.
Comparing Williamson to these two players is brilliant, not because he will be the “next LeBron” or the “second coming of Blake Griffin.” Rather, the juxtaposition of these two players is brilliant because it reflects the two possible paths that Williamson may take in his career.
On the one hand, there is James, a player who has consistently dominated his competition over his 17-year career because of his ability to maintain his outlandish athleticism and strength. On the other hand, there is Griffin, a player whose game closely resembled Williamson’s current style of play, becoming one of the NBA’s brightest stars in the mid-2010s before injuries ravaged his athleticism. Williamson can learn lessons from both of these players, and if he does, he will have a much greater chance of sustaining his career and reaching his potential.
James has been injury-free for so long because of his excellent movement mechanics. While James does also spend upwards of $1.5 million annually to work on his body, James has ultimately been injury-free throughout his career not because of his use of a cryogenic chamber and other expensive technologies, but because of his landing and running form.
When watching James play, it is noticeable that he runs on his forefeet, which is conducive to reducing stress on his feet and knees, and when James lands, he usually lands on two feet, avoiding the sudden, almost violent landing patterns that other NBA players have. Even when James goes for his signature chase down blocks, he usually stars by decelerating, making sure he is running on his forefeet, before accelerating and leaping up in the air to go for the block.
As he’s aged, James has started to play out of the post, which requires less stress on his joints, and, likewise, Williamson should develop a post-game as soon as possible to avoid unnecessary injuries.
Also, James is a rebuttal for the argument that Williamson needs to lose lots of weight. In Miami, James reportedly weighed around 275 pounds, and this was the peak of his physical dominance. His strength and size, combined with the fact that he has never experienced a major injury until this past season, has makes James the best athlete in modern NBA history.
Williamson should probably ensure that he weighs under 290 pounds, to aid his conditioning, but ultimately, if Williamson loses upwards of 35 pounds, his peak performance will be less profound. At his current weight, Williamson is like a 2019 version of Shaquille O’Neal, being too strong for his opponents to handle. And the Pelicans drafted Williamson to be dominant and carry their franchise, so perhaps they shouldn’t encourage Williamson to take too much weight off his frame.
We’ve seen the impact that losing significant weight could have on a player like Williamson; when James returned to Cleveland, he lost 25 pounds and looked like a shell of himself for the first half of the season. So, instead, Williamson should perfect his running mechanics like James, because doing so will prolong his career and improve his performance on the court by allowing him to keep the strength on his body.
Griffin is a better player comparison for Williamson, with both entering the league as uber-athletic forwards with underrated playmaking abilities. But Griffin isn’t a best-case scenario for Williamson, or a career path he should seek to follow. Rather, Griffin is a cautionary tale, a reminder of what Zion needs to change if he wants to reach his potential.
Exactly 10 years ago, Griffin was Williamson, an athletic forward with national attention that was drafted #1 overall. And Griffin, like Williamson, showed flashes of greatness, posting 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game in his inaugural campaign. But Griffin never developed his game until it was too late. At the height of the “Lob City” Clippers, Griffin’s skills plateaued at being able to make passes from the high-post, setting screens, posting up, and shooting mid-range jump-shots.
Now, in Detroit, Griffin has fully developed his skillset, shooting threes off the dribble at a high volume and efficient clip, bringing the ball up the court, refining his post game, and becoming as well rounded of a forward as there is in the NBA. But the one trait that Griffin had, the one ability that made him special, his athleticism, is now gone.
Williamson could easily end up like Griffin, not improving on his weaknesses until it is too late. Doing so would ruin Williamson’s massive potential and would be devastating to a Pelicans franchise that needs Williamson to fill the gaps from Anthony Davis’ departure.
Griffin’s career should be like an alarm to Williamson, constantly reminding him to work on his flaws. Because if Williamson develops the same precise, machine-like running and landing techniques of James and he improves his overall skillset, Williamson should easily be one of the top players of this upcoming decade and perhaps one of the greatest players ever.
Luckily for Williamson, the NBA is currently in the age of “load management,” with rest being accepted and playing in all 82 games no longer being glorified. The Pelicans have already proven to be extremely cautious with Williamson’s health off the court, so there should be a willingness for the Pelicans to manage Williamson’s health. There have been multiple examples of players who could’ve been saved by load management, the most profound of which being Derrick Rose.
Rose, like Griffin and Williamson, was a former #1 overall pick, showed dominance early on in his career because of his athleticism, and then suffered injuries. Rose combined the worst of both worlds; his landing mechanics, until recently, were decidedly awful, with him often kicking his leg out and putting all of the stress of landing on one leg, and with the league looking down on players who rested back then, Rose fought through the obvious pain in his body.
“All the time in Chicago when I was coming back, load management wasn’t a term then,” Rose, speaking to NBA.com, said. “Back then, it was, ‘He’s [expletive] being lazy.’”
Now, MVP level players are allowed to take over 15–20 games off every season, and this year’s Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, who has actually struggled with injury issues of his own, validated the argument for load management in the NBA. Leonard took off many games in the regular season to rest his mysterious quadriceps injury, but in the playoffs, he was far and away the best player after Kevin Durant went down.
With load management, advanced sports medicine, and plenty of examples, both good and bad, to learn from, the onus is on Williamson and the Pelicans to make sure Williamson reaches his potential. If they don’t, then Williamson will be yet another victim, the latest potential NBA legend that forces us, the fans, to ask, “What If?”
All stats via Basketball Reference
Quote from NBA.com