Zion Williamson was one of the most hyped-up NBA draft prospects that the league has seen in recent memory. Due to his incredible talent in high school and college, Williamson was drafted number one overall by the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019. At the time Zion was the second most searched basketball player on YouTube behind only Lebron James. Obviously, a large sum of money came with the contract he signed.
What Was Zion’s Rookie Contract? In total, the deal that he signed was a four-year, $44 million contract with the first 2 years being guaranteed. The second two years being team options that the Pelicans have now chosen to pick up. Zion picks up an average of $11 million each year he plays on his Rookie contract. Zion is about to enter the 4th and Final year of his rookie contract, where he will make $13.5 million. When the 2021/22 season closes he will be eligible to sign an extension.
Williamson’s next contract move is tipped to make history. At the end of this season he is eligible to sign a 5 year extension to his contract with the Pelicans. This would add 5 years and around $181 million onto his contract. Meaning he is signed on with the Pelicans until the 2027-28 season. That seems pretty straightforward right? A team has a mega popular, talented star player. The mega popular, talented star player wants loads of money. Contract is signed. However Zion isn’t your regular star and New Orleans isn’t your regular NBA franchise. No player has ever turned down the rookie max extension when it has been offered.
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Why is Zions contract future murky?
The Pelicans haven’t really gotten to see Zion play all that much. He has suffered numerous injuries and there was so much talk about his weight alongside his willingness to continue playing for the organization. He has played just 85 games in 3 seasons, none of which have been in the 2021-22 season. To make matters worse there has been mismatched information from both the Pelicans and Camp Zion as to why this is.
Through all of that noise, there comes a really difficult decision for both parties. While a healthy Zion is clearly going to be one of the best players the NBA has ever seen, all evidence suggests that he may never be fully healthy. Will Zion ever reach his full potential? In a cap driven sport, answering this question correctly is the biggest decision Pelicans GM David Griffin may ever make.
On the other hand, Zion is a massive star playing in what is seen as a very small NBA market. The New Orleans Saints football team dominates the sporting landscape, with their superdome stadium literally overshadowing the Pelicans Smoothie King Center. Zion may not want to commit his future to the Pelicans, choosing instead to find his way to another franchise, more suited to amplifying his super star status. For Zion though, this may come at a very real cost.
Will Zion Williamson sign the Rookie Max Extension?
Once the 2021-22 NBA season comes to a close the Pelicans can offer Zion a rookie max extension, for the sake of simplicity this would be worth 5 years and $181 million in guaranteed money. Kicking in at the end of the 2022-23 season. It would ensure Williamson had generational wealth and stability for the next 6 years of his career, regardless of how his health issues turn out. He’s 21 now and would be 28 next time he has to worry about signing a new playing contract.
The Pelicans, despite being a small market team, have employed Championship winning GM David Griffin. Despite some early misfires, he seems to have assembled a roster capable of challenging for on court success and most importantly – seemingly complimentary of Zions all world wrecking skill set. Zion is watching from the stands as his team mates put up a fight vs NBA regular season leaders the Phoenix Suns, possibly imagining how he could suit up and be the difference in the close games.
The modern athletes financial security isn’t necessarily solely dependent on their playing contract. Zion is popular, has already got over $40million guaranteed in playing wages and signed a $75 million 7 year shoe deal with Jordan Brand. He may feel he just wants to play where he is happy, money be damned, and has several ways of getting there. One of which is actually by signing his Rookie Max Extension with the Pelicans.
Another feature of the modern NBA landscape is that players now have a lot of power. If they don’t want to be somewhere, contract or not, they can make it worth the teams while to trade them. This may dent them in the world of public opinion, or mean sacrificing a season but a player can sign a max contract and then ask to be traded away. The main danger for Zion here, is that once he signs a long extension he is at the mercy of the Pelicans. Even if they trade him, it may not be where he wants to go.
What is Zion Williamsons Qualifying Offer?
If Zion Williamson chooses not to sign his rookie max extension, the best the Pelicans can do is offer him the Qualifying offer. In Zions case, this is most likely to be $17 million for 1 year, however it could fall as low as $8 million if he fails to play either 41 games or 2,000 minutes in the 2022-23 season. Given that the Pelicans control if he plays or not, the way Zion’s camp handles that decision could cost him almost $10million.
A qualifying offer cannot be turned down by a player. So Zion would have to play out the final year of his rookie contract (2022-23) and 1 season under the Qualifying Offer (2023-24) meaning he won’t be an unrestricted free agent until the summer of 2024. At that point, as an unrestricted free agent he could sign with any team willing to offer him a contract.
Doing this would also depress the total value of any contract he would sign as an unrestricted free agent. Things are set up to give the team that drafted a player the upper hand when it comes to re-signing them.
Even if Zion is desperate to leave New Orleans, his fastest and most lucrative method may be to play ball with them, get healthy, win some basketball games and work with them to get him a trade to his chosen destination when his value is at its highest.
Can Zion Williamson sign a designated player rookie extension?
In order for a player to qualify for a designated player rookie extension they have to have done one of the following things; Won MVP, Won Defensive Player of the year or made an All NBA Team (1st, 2nd or 3rd all qualify). Seeing as Zion has not yet achieved this, he would have to do it during the upcoming 2022-23 season.
Given the accolades needed to be offered this type of contract, you can probably imagine that it’s quite lucrative. Quite simply it would mean that instead of being offered a max $180 million for 5 years, New Orleans could offer him up to $220million over 5 years. Recently Luka Doncic and Trae Young have signed designated player rookie extensions as they made All NBA teams while on their rookie contracts.
If Zion plays 60+ games for a successful New Orleans Pelicans team he could well be considered worthy of an All NBA selection. However in that sentence “if” is doing a lot of work given his 85 games in the previous 3 seasons and absence during the 2022 Playoffs.
Interestingly, if Zion was traded before signing an extension, the destination team would acquire his “Bird” rights, and would also be able to offer him a rookie max extension and if he qualified, a designated player rookie extension.
Do the Pelicans definitely want to sign Zion Williamson to an extension?
Almost certainly the answer to this is yes. Zion, injured or not, is a tempting asset that a team will always bet on. Even if the Pelicans think he isn’t right for their new way forward following the 2022 Playoffs, he would be a massive trade asset if under contract. Letting a former #1 pick with this much potential walkway for nothing would seem criminal. There is always a chance that Zion never regains fitness, fulfills his potential and becomes a salary cap millstone around the Pelicans necks (an albatross contract if you will). That however is the worst case scenario and as Russel Westbrook and John Wall have proven recently – all contracts are tradeable in the NBA.
The Pelicans could also explore some Embiid type limitations to any extension with Zion. Embiid, who had a spotty injury history when his extension came due, took some of the money non-guaranteed as performance bonuses – meaning if he didn’t play it would enable the 76ers to free up Cap Space to cover him more easily. However even proposing this to a potentially disgruntled star could risk inflaming the situation beyond repair.
Some Feel Like Rookie Contracts Are Flawed
The amount of guaranteed money that these rookie NBA players get is incredible. Especially when you are looking at just the top three overall draft picks in any recent draft. Though, the system has some major flaws. We briefly mentioned that Zion may not be happy in New Orleans. Whatever he may be feeling, it could be good for him to get a change of scenery. The team may never let that happen though and could continue to sign him to keep him in New Orleans until he is almost 28. While this is designed to protect small market teams and keep parity in the NBA, stars not being able to choose even which state they live and work in, can seem problematic. The organization can retain him in almost any situation during free agency and can offer the most money to help him feel safe financially. A strong counterpoint, especially in Zions case is that he has already secured over $100million in his young NBA career from playing salary and shoe contracts alone. If money is the only hold New Orleans has on him, then he is in his rights to take the Qualifying offer and resign wherever he can negotiate terms that suit him.