NEW ORLEANS -- What a difference a year makes. Last year on July 6, his 21st birthday, Zion Williamson found out he had suffered a broken right foot, an injury that ended up costing him the 2021-22 season. This year on July 6, his 22nd birthday, the New Orleans Pelicans' forward put ink to paper and signed his five-year designated rookie max extension that could be worth up to $231 million.
Asked where this birthday ranks, Williamson smiled and patted Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin on the shoulder. "Number one," he said.
Williamson signed the extension in front of roughly 80 kids participating in his six-weeks-long summer camp at a local YMCA. Williamson sat down at a table with his parents, Lee and Sharonda Anderson, sitting next to him and little brother, Noah -- who is attending the camp -- standing to his right. A majority of the kids from the camp surrounded the table as Williamson signed the deal. As he put the cap on the pen, Williamson looked up and said, "I'm locked in, baby."
Williamson's deal is worth $193 million over five years and could jump to $231 million if he hits the escalator clauses in the deal by making an All-NBA team next season. Griffin said during the news conference that followed the signing that Williamson's deal does not include a player option on the end of it. When Brandon Ingram signed his five-year deal with New Orleans following the 2019-20 season, he also signed a five-year deal with no option.
"Zion wanted to make that same level of commitment to this organization," Griffin said. "He wasn't looking for a way out. He was looking for a way to stay. His family was looking for a way to be more involved with the community, and you see this here today. This is a human thing." When Williamson addressed the media, he spoke about how not being able to take the court the last season had taken its toll on him.
"I want to thank my family. I want to thank the YMCA. I want to thank the city of New Orleans, especially Mrs. Benson. Thank y'all for believing in me," Williamson said. "Just giving a kid like me a chance to showcase my abilities and hopefully help bring the team multiple championships. Thank y'all for sticking with me the past year.
"On my birthday last year, I found out I broke my foot. I was out the whole year. It was a tough year. For the Pelicans to come give me this birthday gift, I'm not going to let them down. I'm not going to let my family down. I'm not going to let the city down. And most importantly, I'm not going to let myself down."
Williamson said the past few months were a "roller coaster of emotions" for both him and his family. As talk swirled about Williamson's desire to be in New Orleans long term, he said it was his family that started to take the brunt of that.
"In the beginning of the season, I told the world, 'If y'all ever want to know if I want to be here.' Instead of asking me, the world just ran with narratives," Williamson said. "So when my family was going out in public on why we don't like New Orleans, why we don't want to be here when that's not the case at all. I wasn't able to play because my foot was broke. So that sucked. Every time I checked my phone, it was always negative. Even when you're trying to make a positive of the situation, it was very tough."
Williamson was officially cleared to return to full basketball activities May 26. Now the focus is on getting ready for the 2022-23 season, a season in which Williamson wants to prove more than just that he's healthy again.
"I want to prove that I'm a winner," Williamson said. "It's as simple as that. I want to win with coach. As well as with my teammates. The ultimate goal is to win the championship. I feel like that's what we're all striving for. Like Griff said, we're hungry. Y'all saw this past year what the team did and I'm just excited to add to that."
Williamson credited Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, along with the Pelicans staff, with helping him work on things to improve his longevity. He said he believed he was in a "great situation" overall.
When Williamson does get back on the court, the team will look a lot different than the one he last played with on May 4, 2021. McCollum is just one of the new additions along with center Jonas Valanciunas, forward Larry Nance Jr., guard Devonte' Graham as well as second-year players Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III and Jose Alvarado and 2022 draft pick Dyson Daniels.
It was the core of that group that led New Orleans through last season's play-in tournament and into the first round of the playoffs as the No. 8 seed that lost to the Phoenix Suns in six games in the first round. New Orleans accomplished that under first-year coach Willie Green, who was excited at the prospect of finally getting to coach Williamson on the floor next season.
"Well, Zion is a huge part of what we do or what we want to accomplish, and it's not necessarily him fitting in. He can do that with any team in the league. It's about maximizing the group that we have when we add him to it," Green said. "Frankly, I think it's going to be scary for the rest of the NBA. Now it's going to take work to there. What groups play well together? How can we take advantage of different mismatches? How can we put all of our guys on the floor and give them an opportunity to be successful? That takes work. But it all come together at some point throughout the course of the season, and when it does, I think we can be a scary team."