The Long Two: Zion Williamson’s foot and Michael Porter Jr.’s extension


Why Zion Williamson’s foot injury could spell trouble for the Pelicans, plus what Michael Porter Jr.’s max extension means for the Nuggets moving forward.

Monday’s NBA headlines rightfully centered on a small but vocal group of maddeningly selfish and deeply misguided players using incoherent, bad-faith rhetoric to support grossly irresponsible and scientifically indefensible decisions to put both themselves and the general public at greater risk of fatal illness.

The most surprising news of the day, however, had nothing to do with a star player’s vaccination status, but rather the state of his lower body. Pelicans executive David Griffin dropped a bombshell on reporters Monday afternoon when he revealed that Zion Williamson — the team’s lone source of present and future hope — suffered a fractured fifth metatarsal on his right foot earlier this summer and had surgery shortly afterward to repair it. Williamson was apparently injured “on the court while playing” before NBA Summer League, and the team is “hopeful he can start the season.”

How concerning is the latest injury news for Zion Williamson?

It isn’t particularly unusual for players to suffer these kinds of injuries over the offseason, but that the team wouldn’t disclose it until now is. More importantly, the potential long-term consequences of the injury are concerning at best.

Williamson’s game is almost entirely predicated on his unprecedented explosiveness and power. His ability to get downhill and spring off the floor at 285 pounds was the foundation of one of the best rim scoring seasons in NBA history last year, and even slightly compromised athleticism could diminish that key part of Williamson’s game. Furthermore, carrying that much weight with a weakened lower body could cause even more wear-and-tear ailments down the line.

This isn’t the first lower-body injury of the 21-year-old’s career, and it’s precisely the kind of injury that serves as a red flag for someone of Williamson’s size and style. A freakish right knee injury cost him roughly a month of his lone college season, then a minor injury to the opposite knee cost him all but nine minutes of summer league. A torn right meniscus kept him off the court for most of his rookie year, and right knee soreness put him back on the sideline once the Pelicans were eliminated from playoff contention. His latest ailment, obviously, is to a different part of the body, but Williamson’s durability has been the biggest question of his career to date, and another abbreviated offseason poses yet another hurdle to his development and the Pelicans’ pursuit of a playoff spot.

None of these injuries are Williamson’s fault, but they are an unfortunate reality of his career. Even if the outlook is optimistic now, his health has a way of not going to plan, and the Pelicans’ previous handling of a return from injury reportedly contributed to lingering tension between Williamson and the team. It’s in both parties’ best interest to manage the rehab as carefully as possible, but playing things too slow might risk exacerbating whatever hard feelings exist between them.

For now, all sides seem to expect a full recovery by the early stages of the season, with enough time for Williamson to ramp up into midseason form and lead the Pelicans to postseason contention. For the sake of the sport, we should all hope that this is but a minor roadblock on a young star’s path to transcendence. Zion is a truly unique figure in basketball history; hopefully, his body holds up long enough to find out what that really means.

Nuggets sign Michael Porter Jr. to a max extension

As the start of the season inches ever closer, the window for teams and players to agree on rookie extensions is dwindling. The Nuggets, however, put an end to one of the most fascinating extension questions of the season by signing Michael Porter Jr. to a five-year, $172 million max extension on Monday. Like Trae Young and Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, who signed identical contracts earlier this offseason, that deal can balloon up to $207 million if Porter makes an All-NBA team next season — a plausible but unlikely milestone (Luka Dončić will get the full $207 million because he made an All-NBA team last season).

The more interesting question will be whether the deal contains any protection against injuries, given Porter’s history of back ailments, which contributed to him becoming a Nugget in the first place. The obvious analog for his situation is that of Joel Embiid, who signed a famously complicated rookie extension in 2017 that gave the 76ers the right to non-guarantee parts of his salary if previous injuries flared back up and caused him to miss significant time. Porter’s deal could contain similar provisions to protect Denver against becoming saddled with an albatross contract, though he may have had enough leverage to get his money fully guaranteed either way.

If he does stay healthy, Porter will probably live up to his hefty new price. Players who flash the kind of skill and upside he has don’t often flatline, and it’s more than worthwhile to invest in the next five years of such a talented player.

Porter is now the third Nugget in four years to sign a max extension off his rookie deal, and with Aaron Gordon recently inking a four-year, $92 million extension, Denver has now locked in four foundational long-term building blocks (assuming Nikola Jokić sticks around after the 2023 season). Whether that core is good enough to consistently contend for championships will depend on what the Nuggets surround it with, how Jamal Murray looks after a torn ACL, and, crucially, Porter’s own development as a defender and secondary offensive weapon.

Already one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the NBA, Porter has the potential to expand himself into a better pull-up shooter, pick-and-roll operator and straight-line creator off the dribble. He plays well off of Jokić as both a movement 3-point shooter and cutter, and has flashed some ability to get his own shot when Jokić is either off the floor or simply not involved in the action.

A wiry, stiff upper body and high center of gravity raise questions over whether Porter, who is easily moved off his line or jostled off balance, can become an elite on-ball scorer without significantly improving his athletic fluidity. The astronomical efficiency marks he hit last year likely aren’t sustainable as he becomes more of a priority for opposing defenses, and additional defensive attention will also require him to make strides as a playmaker.

Porter’s defensive shortcomings are concerning as well, especially for a team built around a poor defensive center, and he’ll need to at least improve his awareness and activity level on that end of the floor to become passable in the playoffs. On the whole, Porter’s shooting and floor-spacing alone made him a decidedly positive contributor, but this new deal will place him under greater scrutiny on both ends of the floor. No longer a draft steal or promising young prospect, Porter is now a key part of the Nuggets’ long-term vision and will carry with him all that distinction entails.

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