NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Zion Williamson’s missed season due to injury and his unusual absence from the New Orleans Pelicans during his recovery didn’t stop the club from betting big on their long-term future together.
The star forward agreed to a five-year, $193 million extension with New Orleans on Saturday that has the potential to be worth up to $231 million, Williamson’s agent, Austin Brown, told The Associated Press.
Classified as a maximum rookie extension under the NBA’s labor agreement, the deal sets the stage for the 6-foot-6, 280-pound high-scoring power forward to give an All-Star-caliber boost to a team that he recently showed he could make the playoffs without him.
ESPN was first to report on the deal, also citing information provided by Brown, co-head of CAA Sports’ basketball division. The Pelicans have yet to announce the extension, which under NBA rules cannot be signed until July 6.
The move signifies a desire on the part of Duke, the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, to see how much his return could help a team that improved dramatically late last season and had a surprisingly competitive showing in the playoffs.
It’s also a show of the Pelicans’ faith in the injury-plagued Williamson, who played a total of 85 games in his first three NBA seasons, missing all of last season with a foot injury.
This spring, the Pelicans won two Western Conference play-in games before taking top-seeded Phoenix six games into the first round of the 2022 playoffs. They did it with a team led by high end Brandon Ingram, veteran guard CJ McCollum, center Jonas Valanciunas and a supporting cast of young players who flourished under the guidance of NBA head coach Willie Green.
A season earlier, Williamson averaged a team-high 27 points and became an All-Star for the first time during what was his only NBA season not mostly or entirely wiped out by injuries.
Williamson played in just 24 games as a rookie due to a preseason injury to his right knee (lateral meniscus).
He played in 61 of 72 games in his second season. But he hurt his foot during the 2021 offseason while doing basketball drills with his stepfather, whom he had previously entrusted with his offseason training.
The Pelicans didn’t disclose the injury until the first day of training camp in September and said they expected him to be ready to play for the regular-season opener on Oct. 20. Williamson initially agreed to that timeline, which turned out to be extremely optimistic. . He ended up missing the entire regular season and the playoffs.
Williamson also chose to spend a significant portion of the season away from New Orleans and the Pelicans. He chose to rehab in Oregon, where his shoe sponsor, Nike, is based.
During that time, the Pelicans offered few updates on Williamson, any mention of whom was later conspicuously absent from the Pelicans’ promotional material regarding season ticket renewals for the 2022-23 season.
No NBA player has ever turned down a maximum extension to his NBA rookie contract, though the awkwardness between Williamson and the Pelicans sparked speculation that Williamson could be the first.
But Williamson rejoined the team in March and seemed emotionally invested in his playoff run, routinely participating in celebrations of triumphant moments near the bench.
And when the season ended, Williamson said that if New Orleans offered him a maximum extension, he “couldn’t sign her fast enough.”
“It was a different feeling this year. You saw it on the court,” said Williamson, who had a different coach in each of his first three NBA seasons. “We have a special group. I really believe that.”
In late May, several weeks after the Pelicans’ season ended, the club announced that Williamson had been cleared for unrestricted basketball activities.
With Williamson sidelined and Green as a rookie head coach, the Pelicans started 1-12 last season. But they steadily climbed into contention for a Western Conference postseason spot.
They had started to improve even before acquiring McCollum from Portland two days before the NBA trade deadline. McCollum helped them bounce back to clinch a ninth overall seed and a home play-in game.
The Pelicans defeated 10th-seeded San Antonio. They then won a second play-in game over the Clippers in Los Angeles to advance to the first round of the playoffs against Phoenix.
New Orleans won twice in that series, which was tied at 2 games apiece before the Suns closed out with consecutive wins.
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