By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A wide-smiling Zion Williamson could afford to poke fun at himself for the free throw he missed while fans packing the New Orleans Pelicans’ home arena were celebrating his latest dominant outing with thunderous chants of “M-V-P!”
That’s because the Pelicans, now perched atop the Western Conference standings, had just won their seventh straight game — thanks in no small part to Williamson’s game-high 35 points on Sunday in a 129-124 overtime triumph over the Phoenix Suns.
“The dude is a one-of-one player. So, there’s no guideline as to what to expect from him on a given night,” Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. said. “We’ve never seen this blueprint before.
“I don’t even know if we’ve seen his best yet,” Nance added, “which is terrifying for the NBA.”
Drafted first overall out of Duke in 2019, but sidelined for most of his first three seasons, Williamson is well on his way to dispelling any notion that he might go down in NBA history as an injury-prone, out-of-shape bust.
Indeed, the repeated celebratory flexing of his well-defined biceps after he barrels through traffic in the paint and deftly finishes at the rim are reminding anyone watching that he is very much in shape — and in form.
During New Orleans’ past seven games, with Pelicans high-scoring wing player Brandon Ingram sidelined by a left foot injury, Williamson has taken charge, averaging 30.3 points. He’s scored on everything from rim-rattling, alley-oop dunks, to explosive, off-balance, driving layups while being fouled, to put backs and even 3-pointers.
“I got to thank my teammates and my coaches,” Williamson said when asked about his recent string of prolific performances. “My teammates looked at me like, ‘All right, we’re depending on you.’
“I mean, that trust does a lot for somebody,” Williamson continued. “So, to see them trust me — you know I missed all last season — it means a lot to me. I simply just don’t want to let them down.”
Williamson missed most of his rookie season because of protracted rehabilitation from a preseason knee injury. His second season was an individual success; he averaged 27 points in 61 games and was named a first-time All-Star, but the Pelicans missed the playoffs and fired coach Stan Van Gundy after only one season.
Williamson then missed all of his third pro season because of a foot injury that did not initially respond well to treatment, casting doubt upon whether he’d ever live up to the hype that had basketball fans in New Orleans partying on downtown streets the night he was drafted.
Lately, Pelicans fans have been rising to their feet in the Smoothie King Center each time Williamson launches his muscle-bound, 6-foot-6 frame toward the rim, either with the ball in his hands or on its way to him via a lob.
“I’m just proud of him more than anything,” Pelicans second-year coach Willie Green said. “When you have an injury, especially being the caliber of player that Zion is, you’re measured by how you recover.
“There’s a lot of scrutiny, eyes on him. For him to come back, have the conditioning that he does, still have his touch, his handle, you can tell he was working all offseason.”
Veterans Nance and CJ McCollum have become Williamson confidantes, routinely offering guidance about everything from maintaining a healthy lifestyle to refining his on-court skills.
“He’s relishing this opportunity to be able to be out there and be able to play in big moments in meaningful games — and he’s delivering,” McCollum said. “He’s done the work, obviously. You can see he’s starting to be more comfortable. I think the last seven or eight games he’s looked like Zion, right? An MVP-caliber player.”
While Williamson has been effective using his rare combination of size, explosiveness and leaping ability to finish around the rim, McCollum has urged him to develop his mid-range and perimeter shooting in order to keep defenses from collapsing into the paint every time he has the ball.
On Sunday night, Williamson attempted three 3-pointers, hitting two. He also has been praised by teammates for his ability to make the right pass when crowded by multiple defenders.
For the season, Williamson has averaged 25 points in 21 contests while shooting better than 60%. Those are the type of numbers that, if sustained, would begin to justify the Pelicans’ decision to sign Williamson to a five-year extension worth at least $193 million.
But Williamson insists he doesn’t get too caught up in statistics, as long as the Pelicans are winning.
“We’re No. 1 in the West right now,” Williamson said after New Orleans defeated Phoenix in two straight games over the weekend. “I know, to a lot of people, it’s not a big deal because it’s early in the season. But for us to kind of have that ranking right now, that’s big and we want to not only hold onto it, but build on it.”
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