Opinion: Zion Williamson’s knee injury deflates Pelicans, NBA season before it begins

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USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt breaks down the expectations surrounding top pick Zion Williamson in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Pelicans tried to slow the Zion Williamson Hype Train.

A troublesome right knee brought it to a screeching halt.

Not only will Williamson miss the Pelicans’ season opener Tuesday at Toronto (8 p.m. ET, TNT), he will miss about six-to-eight weeks after undergoing surgery Monday to address a torn right lateral meniscus, the team said in a news release late Monday afternoon.

So what was billed as a marquee lid-lifter features the defending champion Raptors without NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and the Pelicans without the most touted rookie since LeBron James.

Williamson’s absence puts a damper on opening night and the first two months of the season. He was already a must-see attraction and his debut will have to wait until sometime near Christmas.

The Pelicans’ growth will also be stunted because Williamson is such a big part of their present and future, and though the Pelicans still have talent to win games, the excitement around their season crashed before it even began. In the deep Western Conference, New Orleans is a borderline playoff team, and without Williamson even for six-to-eight weeks, it makes postseason goals that much more difficult.

But for the Pelicans, Williamson means more than one season. Yes, they want him on the court as much as possible, but his long-term health – and we’re talking multiple seasons – is far more important than two months worth of games. New Orleans needs to be cautious. There’s no other way around it. There’s just too much at stake.

Everyone involved in the NBA wanted to see his debut Tuesday, the most anticipated since James played his first game for Cleveland in 2003. That includes networks TNT and ESPN. The Pelicans are on national TV, including NBA TV, nine times the first five weeks.

Williamson will eventually play, but this absence invites larger questions about his health. He was injured at Duke, was held out of summer league games as a precaution after sustaining a bruised left knee and now this. Individually, each issue is not a big deal. Collectively, though, are these signs of the potential for long-term health problems?

He is an explosive big man (6-6, 285) who puts pressure on his knees and feet and that has resulted in lingering health problems for other players. Greg Oden is the extreme example and Amar’e Stoudemire is an example of a player who had knee injuries but forged a productive career. Then, there’s James, who has been relatively injury free despite his combination of size, power and quickness.

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