Zion is back, happy and on a talented team — and that's bad news for the rest of the league

NEW YORK — It started behind the Pelicans’ bench, throughout New Orleans’ surprise postseason run this spring. There, above the chain hanging from Zion Williamson’s strapping neck, was that familiar rise of his bulbous cheeks. After the knee surgery, the broken finger, the countless setbacks from a fractured right foot, after playing only 85 games in his first three seasons, Williamson started smiling again.

And here he was Wednesday, cheesing from ear to ear with that giant hoop sparkling under his left lobe, having dropped a casual 25 points in the Pelicans’ 130-108 opening night drubbing of the Brooklyn Nets — the All-Star forward’s resounding season debut.

Williamson beamed as he waded through the postgame locker room, only a black towel draped around his waist from a well-deserved rinse, ribbing equipment managers and New Orleans’ public relations crew alike. He spotted another staffer decked in a stylish green trench coat, then promptly teased the man, assuming there was someone in the crowd this outfit must have been intended to impress.

Forward Larry Nance asked aloud when New Orleans’ first bus was leaving the bowels of Barclays Center, and a voice in the distance announced only 10 minutes stood before its scheduled departure time.

“You’re not making it!” Williamson boomed. “There’s no way you’re making it!”

Duke coaches saw this magnetism throughout his freshman season in Durham, North Carolina. Sure, there were the rim-rattling dunks and the jaw-dropping blocks. But the teenager with the spotlight permanently affixed to his back found clever ways to deflect its rays onto others in his orbit. He’d throw his arm around Blue Devils walk-on Mike Buckmire, yanking the benchwarmer right alongside him at media sessions, grinning with his creative circumvention of all the attention.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 19: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans goes to the basket as Ben Simmons #10 of the Brooklyn Nets defends during the first half at Barclays Center on October 19, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson did his thing against Ben Simmons and the Nets on Wednesday night. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

“He’s got an infectious smile,” Duke head coach Jon Scheyer told Yahoo Sports.

That joy returning to Williamson’s face, and rushing through New Orleans’ franchise, is still no small feat. It’s almost surreal how the proverbial switch has been flipped and set the superstar aglow.

Only a year ago, Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin was announcing Williamson’s devastating foot injury suffered that offseason, before Williamson missed the 2021-22 opener and then the entire campaign that followed. New Orleans stumbled out of the gate, and then stumbled again, losing 12 of its first 13 games. The whispers about Griffin’s job security, about the chasm that stood between Williamson and a contract extension with the small-market afterthought to New Orleans’ neighboring Saints, were echoing loudly around rival front offices.

One evening, on Williamson’s way out of the Smoothie King Center, Pelicans assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon stopped the hulking phenom and checked how he was feeling. Usually, Williamson would shrug off the query and keep moving. But with the trust he and Weatherspoon had developed, Williamson stopped there, his sneakers blocks of cement, and admitted what he would only admit to few confidants: “Nah, I am not OK.”

Weatherspoon didn’t respond with words.

“She cried for me,” Williamson said Wednesday night. “She literally just cried for me. I remember just trying to take that in.”

Veteran guard C.J. McCollum arrived in February. The trade deadline presented few sellers, but the Portland Trail Blazers were open for business, and Griffin’s staff targeted McCollum with aplomb — no matter rival efforts from the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks. And with McCollum came Nance, the unofficial president of the Williamson fan club, who regularly gushes about the Pelicans’ centerpiece via Twitter.

The energy began to shift. Jose Alvarado morphed from two-way underdog to backcourt menace. Rookies Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III arrived. McCollum’s presence infused a different element into the Pelicans’ alchemy. Not only a career 40% long-distance sniper who could space for anyone’s dribble penetration, but the damn president of the players association, a walking example of a routine that can lead to perennial playoff appearances.

He connected with Williamson over the phone shortly after the All-Star break, and then the text messages started pinging back and forth. Now, McCollum often finds Williamson himself finding a nearby seat on New Orleans' team bus.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations just about life, basketball, what it takes to be successful, what it takes to sustain a certain excellence, and what it’s going to look like for us as a team this season,” McCollum told Yahoo Sports. “So we’ve just had a lot of conversations about what it takes to win. And I think, for me to share my knowledge and my experiences, I’ve been injured before, I’ve gone through that, I know what that’s like, I’ve gone through foot fractures. I think for me, it was just perspective, giving him that. ‘Hey, this is what I see, this is how we can build as a team, these are things I want to work on, so you can hold me accountable.’ Those types of things.”

These Pelicans may be the biggest argument for the success of the NBA’s new play-in structure. New Orleans had no designs on lottery luck. Each contest during the final stretch of that regular season felt like an elimination game, and for some, perhaps the state of this era for the franchise altogether. But New Orleans took care of San Antonio and then vanquished the Clippers in Los Angeles, before taking two games from the defending Western Conference champion Suns in Round 1.

“It was a great momentum builder for our team, for our organization, for me, and our work in the summer,” head coach Willie Green said.

Somehow, some way, the Pelicans have bottled that force. Everyone wearing red, navy and Mardi Gras gold is drinking the Kool-Aid. The taste of early season optimism goes down quite smoothly, but Williamson appears ready to pour another round 81 more times this season, with a newly signed five-year, $193 million deal.

“I can see his energy starting to come back,” Green said. “That smile is real. It’s fun to have him back in the gym. He’s been very, very good and we look forward to him just continuing to build from here.”

When the national anthem belted throughout Barclays Center, Williamson kept looking at Weatherspoon once again. They were months and miles away from those tears they shed. Williamson found the eyes of the coach who’s become more like a big sister, underneath all the stadium noise, and simply uttered, “Look how God work. It’s crazy.”

The crowd roared as the Nets’ starting lineup was announced. Williamson bobbed his head as an introduction video on the jumbotron blared “Public Service Announcement” from Brooklyn’s own Jay-Z. He’d forgotten the allure of inside an arena, the stage being set.

“Those subtle things, I’m like, this is why I love the game,” Williamson said. “This is why I wanted to be a part of something like this.”