FOX Sports NBA reporter
Zion Williamson is still concerned about the words he heard about himself.
Fat. Lazy. Fail.
He went from NBA darling to their punch line after gaining weight while rehabilitating a broken right foot that sidelined him all of last season.
It was devastating for Williamson, who was picked #1 overall by New Orleans in the 2019 draft and would go on to become an MVP Caliber player, but instead became a magnet for cruel weight jokes.
“What people don’t understand is, even the writers and stuff, if they have kids of their own, imagine if someone was talking about their kid like they were talking about me,” Williamson told FOX Sports last week. “Criticizing my body, criticizing how I look. Every time they talked about me it was about weight, how bad looking I was. I don’t even think they understood the impact this could have on you.”
So much has changed for Williamson since then.
Asked if he could lose weight by coming to training camp with a significantly slimmed figure, he fell silent. And he immediately calmed doubts about whether he could be great again with a 25-point and nine-rebound performance in his regular-season debut against the Brooklyn Nets last month.
After a recent game against the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James gushed about Williamson.
“You’ve never seen a talent of his size, his speed, his athleticism,” James said. “Like a Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. Just like one [Charles] Barkley. Like a Shaq [O’Neal]. There’s just certain talent coming into our league that you’ve never seen before.”
For Williamson, his journey back to superstardom has been awkward and painful.
Last season, Williamson fell into a dark hole after sustaining the injury over the summer and then suffering a demoralizing kickback with his foot. Originally, the injury was due to sideline him about five weeks before the ramp-up. But in December, imaging showed regression in bone healing.
He felt as if a rug was being pulled out from under his feet. Williamson tried to hide his deep disappointment. But Pelicans assistant trainer Teresa Weatherspoon could see his pain through the gossamer veneer he was trying to cover it with.
“He wore a smile that I knew to myself wasn’t a smile,” she said. “He wore it to distract people from what he was really feeling.”
Unable to play basketball or do any conditioning exercises, Williamson’s weight skyrocketed. It quickly became internet fodder. Photos of him looking heavy went viral. Reddit forums have been dedicated to people guessing how much he weighed and making fun of him.
“It’s bad because when you have a lower body injury, it dictates how you walk, how you run, how you perform everyday activities and how you move,” Williamson said. “That the world was so critical of me and I was just trying to make sure my foot was straight? It was a lot. I won’t lie to you – it was a lot.”
Williamson immersed himself in listening to music, particularly Notorious BIG’s Ready To Die album, which he said “changed my life” because it helped him be grateful for just being alive. And he relied on the support of his inner circle.
Weatherspoon became a confidant and a shoulder to cry on. Pelicans coach Willie Green, who tore his cruciate ligament in his third season in the league and said his weight skyrocketed from 205 to 230 pounds during that time, deeply understood what Williamson was going through and knew how to cope had to.
“He never berated me with questions,” Williamson said of Green. “He would always let me know, ‘Z, if you need someone to talk to, let’s have lunch or dinner.'”
Williamson’s mother and stepfather meant well, but sometimes they would read articles pertaining to them and then call their son and bombard him with questions about his progress, which only stressed him out more.
“I was like, ‘Everyone relax, hearing it from you all isn’t helping me and it’s actually making it worse for me,'” Williamson said. “So when I broke it, they understood. Once my foot has healed I will be back on track.”
Williamson kept his word.
He was cleared for basketball activity in March and returned to cheer on the team in New Orleans after a two-month rehab stint at the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon. In July, he agreed to a contract extension with the Pelicans worth at least $193 million, dependent on incentives, though it reportedly includes weight and body fat goals.
During the offseason, Williamson trained twice a day in South Florida with Jasper Bibbs, an exercise medicine/performance specialist. Williamson woke at 4:30 a.m. for his first practice before returning to practice at night, alternating on the track, soccer field and basketball court.
“It gave my mind mental discipline, sharp discipline,” Williamson said.
Williamson also hired a personal chef, Jhonas Lewis, to prepare his breakfast, lunch, dinner and every snack seven days a week from July through September. Lewis, a former walk-on football player at the University of South Florida, lost 120 pounds just by changing his diet after weighing up to 347 pounds after retiring from athletics.
Lewis first put Williamson on a detox, followed by a carb-cycling program in which he ate mostly protein and veggies, only adding healthy carbs on certain days of the week. The goal for Williamson was to lose weight without losing muscle mass while exercising burned more than 2,000 calories a day, Lewis estimated.
The regime was very successful.
“I don’t know if I should say the number, but I’m going to say this: [He lost] well over 35 pounds for sure,” said Lewis. “We dropped almost 7-9 pounds a week. In the third week he started seeing the results. You couldn’t pay Zion to put his shirt on.”
Lewis Williamson once made a turkey bolognese, but he substituted scrambled zucchini, cucumber, spinach and arugula for pasta. After serving the dish, Lewis Williamson explained the ingredients as private chefs usually do to their clients.
But Williamson winced in disgust. From then on, a new understanding was born.
“I said, ‘You know what? Let’s not go there,'” Lewis said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Don’t even tell me, chef. Just keep doing what you’re doing. It tastes amazing.’ So I went ahead and just stopped telling him exactly what was inside [the food].”
(The turkey bolognese became one of Williamson’s favorite dishes, so much so that Lewis eventually had to cut it.)
Lewis went on to add spirulina to Williamson’s smoothies. He made it mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes and added truffles and garlic to enhance the flavor. For dinner, he always served either a white fish or a salmon, along with several other proteins. (Some of Williamson’s favorites were Baked Honey Hot Lemon Pepper Wings and King Prawns with Garlic and Butter.)
First, Lewis prepared Williamson’s plate to make sure it was portioned. But for this to work, Williamson made it clear that he needs to feel like he’s not dieting. He asked to eat family style so he didn’t feel overly restricted. Williamson wanted to learn how to make the right decisions for himself.
Eventually, Williamson’s taste buds changed. He started enjoying healthy food and craving less sugar.
Before meeting Lewis, Williamson had some bad habits that he needed to break.
“Every time he went to get food, he had to ask two big Dr. Add peppers or four large colas and that was before he even touched his food,” Lewis said. “You know what lemonade does to you? I think by week five he stopped tasting soda because it was fruit and water literally every day.”
Williamson has maintained his weight and is currently in the best shape of his life.
He is strong and agile at the same time. He can smash through defenses with the force of a freight train, but he can also turn on the fly to find the open man or execute a nifty shot. An unusual blend of power and speed, he is a bulldozer capable of pirouettes.
So far this season, Williamson has averaged 22.7 points on 52.4 percent shots, 6.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 31.9 minutes per game for the Pelicans, who are in the Western Conference with a record 5- 4 are in seventh place. After a 17-month absence, he looks fitter than ever.
“He knows he can do better,” said Green. “That’s the scary part.”
In fact, Williamson believes the world has only seen a fraction of what he can do. Now his biggest challenge isn’t proving others wrong. He’s right.
“There are a lot of skills that I have that I haven’t shown yet,” Williamson said. “There are skills that I show when I practice or play one on one, [but] In a game I’m going to be so in my head that I want to be that perfectionist or I want to feel like I can take every shot I take that I’m not shooting my middy [midrange jumper] or I won’t shoot my 3. I am able to do all of that and more. I just need to get out of that perfectionist mindset.”
Weatherspoon is constantly seeing what he’s capable of. She says Williamson can go in any direction and shoot from anywhere on the pitch. “Everyone just sees that he’s going to the edge,” she said, smiling.
James also thinks the sky is the limit for Williamson.
“It’s so funny when you hear people say, ‘Just stop him from going left. Stop him going left,’” James said. “It’s exactly what I’ve heard for so many years [Manu] Ginobili, just stop him going left. Lamar Odom, stop him from going left. If you’re awesome, it doesn’t matter what you do, they will find a way. So Zion is about to be great. He’ll be great in this league for a long time to come.”
Williamson has come this far.
He went from being the laughingstock of internet trolls to the paean of the face of the League. He was from the lowest point in his life to full of hope for his future. He went from worrying about ever playing basketball again to hoping to be one of the best basketball players ever.
But most of all, he got his joy back. If he smiles now, Weatherspoon believes it.
“It’s a real smile,” she said.
The past year has been incredibly tough for Williamson. But it also taught him a very important lesson.
Nothing can be taken for granted.
“If it’s God’s plan that I don’t play basketball, then it’s His plan,” Williamson said. “But if it’s his plan for me to play basketball, then I’ll do it to the best of my ability.”
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Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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