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Guide to Zion: David Griffin leaning on experiences with LeBron

While waiting for Williamson, the Pelicans can learn from the ‘Book of James’

TORONTO – New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin urged his players to watch the Toronto Raptors hoist their first NBA championship banner on Tuesday night. Griffin had experienced the thrill of seeing the Cleveland Cavaliers raise their first banner three years ago when he was the Cavs’ general manager, and he wanted this moment to motivate his new team.

Unfortunately for Griffin and the Pelicans, No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson was not in attendance following surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee on Monday. Williamson is expected to miss six to eight weeks.

“I would have loved for Zion to be there,” Griffin told The Undefeated. “But the way the surgery took place, you just weren’t able to move him. You don’t want to travel right afterwards. And you certainly didn’t want to wait to get the process done. There is no sense having him come up here and answer a whole bunch of questions when we knew what was going to happen.

“We just wanted to take care of him as soon as possible. But absolutely, we would have liked him to see this.”

Griffin, who was in Cleveland from 2014 to 2017 before both sides agreed to part ways, would also like to draw upon his experiences with LeBron James — his “Book of James” — to help Williamson navigate his NBA career.

There has not been an NBA newcomer who has received more hype since James’ arrival than Williamson. The one-and-done Duke star already has 4.4 million followers on Instagram after dominating college basketball last season with high-flying dunks, grown-man rebounds and vicious blocks.

The Pelicans undoubtedly were picked to play in the first game of the season against the defending champs because of Williamson. “The Zion phenomenon,” as Griffin calls it, also caused ESPN and Turner Sports to select New Orleans to be on national television a franchise record 30 times this season.

“We are on national TV 30 times this year in large measure because of the Zion phenomenon,” Griffin said. “Having been a part of a team with a phenomenon with LeBron, Kyrie [Irving] and Kevin [Love], it’s certainly been a learning experience that I hope we can utilize. The mistakes we made then, I hope we don’t make now. We didn’t ignore the noise well as a team. There was so much scrutiny that you didn’t know was going to come or proactively prepare for.

“But now we can be in front of a lot of things, although you wouldn’t know it by the way I handled the injury situation. But you control actively being in front of something.”

While Griffin says he expects Williamson to try to persuade his way into making his debut earlier, the Pelicans will err on the side of caution.

“He was down for a minute. He has days that were hard. But for the most part, he’s using the thing that is moving him forward,” Griffin said. “He knows this has happened to a lot of people that have been fine. It doesn’t make him unique that he has to overcome something.

“I’ve mentioned this about Blake Griffin. The guy missed his whole rookie season with a much more severe injury and he’s had a pretty fair career. There are a lot of examples for [Williamson], including, ironically, [Michael] Jordan himself.”

Williamson can also learn from James, who has become known for taking care of his body.

Williamson was listed at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds on the opening day roster. While much has been made about his weight and whether that contributed to his knee injury, Griffin strongly shot down that theory, saying Williamson is much more muscle than fat. James, too, has a muscular 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame. His business partner, Maverick Carter, said last year that the Los Angeles Lakers star spends $1.5 million per year on his body for physical therapy equipment, personal chefs and trainers.

“The one thing I think is unique about both guys is they are so much bigger and muscular than everyone else,” Griffin said. “But watching LeBron do what he did, investing in the process of taking care of himself, putting in the sheer volume of time he did, is helpful to see. It gives you a good understanding of what that baseline has to look like. We’ve tried to surround him with that same thing. A 19-year-old kid don’t quite get it. LeBron didn’t quite get it at 19, right?

“But then the light came on when [James] was around other elite players. This is one of those things that lend itself to being a learning experience. It’s hard because [Williamson] is so wholly unique. He doesn’t even know his body yet. … He is still growing.”

James has gone on to enjoy the brightest spotlight in the NBA with three championships, 15 All-Star appearances and four MVP awards. He’s even built an empire off the court and has 52.1 million followers on Instagram (not a typo).

While it’s way too early to tell whether Williamson will live up to the hype, Pelicans teammate Josh Hart expects him to continue being the same big kid from South Carolina.

“He is so humble,” said Hart, who played with James last season. “He doesn’t really care for it. As big as he gets, he’s still the same dude. He comes in a little goofy, a little awkward and likes having fun. That’s just his vibe. I don’t see that changing no matter how good he gets or small he gets.”

Added Griffin: “Zion is just so young and so joyful. Where he has been unique for me versus the version of LeBron that I was around is everything is new for him and he has sort of childlike joy in everything that is happening. He is genuine much the same way that LeBron was.”

The basketball world will just have to wait a few more weeks to experience it.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.