When the New Orleans Pelicans extended the contract of Zion Williamson in July 2022, it was a jubilant moment for the franchise. New Orleans had managed to lock up Williamson for five additional years for $197 million, ensuring the star selected No. 1 overall in 2019 would remain in town.
The deal itself was significant, with Williamson seen not only as key to turning the Pelicans into a contender, but also as an example of a young All-Star willing to reach a long-term deal with a small-market team. It was not without risk, however — Williamson had missed significant chunks of his first three years in the NBA, including the entire 2021-22 season. As a result, the team negotiated major hedges tied to Williamson’s health and conditioning in case he had problems staying on the court.
According to the contract, which was reviewed by The Athletic, the final three years of the deal are no longer guaranteed after Williamson was able to only play in 29 games last season. By missing more than 22 games last season, Williamson triggered a clause that turned the salary he is owed for the 2025-26, 2026-27 and 2027-28 seasons from guaranteed to non-guaranteed. That means the Pelicans have the contractual power to waive Williamson after the 2024-25 season with no financial ramifications — though rival team executives believe that would only happen in extreme circumstances. And if Williamson misses significant time this season, it could cut into his guaranteed salary for 2024-25.
The contract also has ways for Williamson to earn back the guarantees by playing in enough games and hitting specific weigh-in checkpoints.
When approached by The Athletic, the Pelicans several times declined to comment, answer questions about the contract or make Williamson available to speak. Williamson’s agent, Austin Brown, did not return messages seeking comment.
Williamson, 23, is in the first year of his five-year extension, and his health and his availability have quickly become major themes yet again. He has stayed on the court so far, playing in 23 of 28 games while averaging an efficient 22 points in 30.5 minutes per contest, but his conditioning has been sharply questioned. He looked lethargic in an ugly In-Season Tournament loss to the Lakers, prompting TNT’s Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal to heap criticism on him, saying he was out of shape. The New Orleans Times Picayune reported that the team has long questioned Williamson’s work ethic.
The Pelicans had guarded themselves against such uncertainty when reaching the extension last year. The complex deal, key details of which were confirmed by six league sources on condition of anonymity, contained unusual measures taken by the Pelicans to directly connect guaranteed salary with games played.
Beyond the shift for the final three years of the deal, Williamson is at risk of losing even more in guarantees if he doesn’t hit certain marks during regular checks of his weight and body fat. Under the contract, the sum of Williamson’s weight in pounds and his body fat percentage must be less than 295. He was listed as weighing 285 pounds last season, meaning his body fat could not be higher than 10 percent.
The Pelicans also have protected themselves in case Williamson has any further significant issues with the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. If he suffers a fracture or a stress injury to that bone or the healed callus, or has what the contract calls a “hardware failure” related to the previous injury there, then half of his base salary for 2024-25 would no longer be guaranteed if the team released him.
While the complexity of Williamson’s contract is highly unusual, the NBA has seen contracts before that offer teams injury and playing time protections. Joel Embiid’s rookie extension with the Philadelphia 76ers was a max deal that also gave the franchise financial cover if he got hurt again after Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons with foot injuries. Jonathan Isaac signed a four-year extension with the Magic that runs through the 2024-25 season but is only partially guaranteed for this season and non-guaranteed for next season after he dealt with a slew of injuries during his first three years.
Williamson’s deal, by comparison, is much more layered.
Williamson has said that he spent this offseason working on his body after building a plan with the Pelicans. He had realized, he said, that he needed to change his routine. Williamson said this summer on a podcast co-hosted by former NBA star Gilbert Arenas that he was focusing on flexibility and band work, and on ways to stay on the court longer. LeBron James, he said, serves as a blueprint; James is known to spend large sums on his health and conditioning each year and remains dominant at 38.
Before this season began, David Griffin, the Pelicans’ head of basketball operations, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said the franchise had finally seen Williamson commit wholeheartedly to his health.
“This was the first summer where we’ve seen Zion really take his profession seriously like that and invest it off the court on his own in a way that I think is meaningful,” Griffin said in October. He added: “He found a level of commitment that was important.”
Four executives from other NBA teams, who spoke on condition of anonymity so they could discuss Williamson’s arrangement, said it was unlikely that the Pelicans would waive him unless the situation grew significantly worse. The contract terms give the team flexibility and a safety net, however, and could make it easier to trade Williamson because potential partners would have escape hatches that could lower the risk of adding his salary to their ledger.
There are also avenues for Williamson to have portions of, or even his entire salary, become guaranteed again. Twenty percent of his salary for the 2025-26 season will become guaranteed if he passes all six of his weigh-in checkpoints during the 2024-25 season, another 40 percent if he plays in at least 41 games in 2024-25 and an additional 20 percent if he plays in at least 51. The final 20 percent gets re-guaranteed if he plays in at least 61 games. He can re-guarantee portions of his salary for the 2026-27 and 2027-28 seasons as well by hitting those same milestones in the seasons before.
There are also a number of vesting dates in the deal that tie the team and the player together.
Williamson’s contract for the 2024-25 season becomes completely guaranteed as long as the Pelicans don’t waive him on or before Jan. 7 of that season. His 2025-26 salary is 100 percent protected as long as he’s not waived on or before July 15, 2025. His 2026-27 compensation is 100 percent protected as long as he’s not waived on or before July 15, 2026. And the final season’s salary becomes 100 percent guaranteed as long as Williamson is not waived on or before July 15, 2027.
For the Pelicans, the contract terms protect against the worst possibilities. But both sides, clearly, would prefer to see Williamson play out his contract and dominate — and be paid handsomely. Williamson, too, is invested.
“Whether people believe it or not, when I’m on the sideline, man, that hurt me more than anything,” Williamson said of missing playing time, speaking on the podcast co-hosted by Arenas. “I just want to hoop.”
(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)