METAIRIE, La. – Zion Williamson, the first choice in last summer's NBA draft, will make his regular season debut for the Pelicans on January 22 when New Orleans hosts the San Antonio Spurs.
"Everything is going in the right direction," said Griffin. "I firmly believe that he is a radically improved physical version of himself that we honestly took the extra time for."
Williamson missed the first 41 games in New Orleans this season when he rehabilitated from arthroscopic surgery to repair the lateral meniscus in his right knee. The timeline for the return of the former Duke star calls for Williamson to miss three more games, starting with Thursday night's home game against Utah.
New Orleans also hosts the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday and visits Memphis on Monday.
Griffin also pointed out that Williamson's logs are closely monitored and are likely to be limited for the time being.
"From a health point of view, we will definitely treat him differently," said Griffin. "It's not about a hard minute limit. It's about how the bursts should look. You measure it by that. If you come back to the game after a serious injury, it's not a number. He'll play bursts in a limited number."
The pelicans have gone between 15 and 26 without Williamson, but have won nine of their last 13 games to reach the last Western Conference playoff spot in four games with half of the remaining season.
The 6-foot-6, 285-pound Williamson is relatively heavy for an NBA player, no matter who moves well and often climbs over the edge for the kind of dunks that have been with him since high school in Spartanburg, South, have made Carolina an internet sensation. The purpose of his mid-October surgery was to repair cartilage, which serves as a natural padding in the knee joint. Therefore, the club took a cautious approach to rehabilitation to minimize the possibility of a setback while trying to improve its general physical condition.
"You address everything," said Griffin. "They deal with ankle flexion, knees, hips, back and everything else.
"What happened is that his entire chain of motion is now in a better position," Griffin continued. “It starts with being more flexible. Once you make someone more flexible, you need to give them the strength to control that flexibility. It was a dance, it was really like that. But he was able to do some things physically that he could not do before. Especially because of the strong flexion that he has in the ankles and hips. He is in a good place. "
Williamson returned to training on January 2 and was recently seen submerging during Pelicans preparatory sessions.
However, due to the recent frequency of games and travel days, as well as injuries to several other players, the pelicans were unable to complete many more intensive five-to-five exercises.
"We didn't have the days when we could get everything in shape and let him do the exercises, you know, in physical condition and all that," said Alvin Gentry, Pelicans coach. "Obviously he's an explosive guy and that's pretty obvious when he practices in certain situations.
"He has a great sense of the game," added Gentry. "But we have to remember, boys, that he has never played an NBA game before. He played pre-season games, which doesn't really count."
It will take some time, according to Gentry, to figure out which four other players are best placed on the ground with Williamson.
Before his injury, Williamson played four preparation games with an average of 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds. He underwent surgery in mid-October.
He scored an average of 22.6 points per game at Duke in the 2018/19 season and was also selected into the ACC's all-defensive team after an average of 8.9 rebounds, 2.12 steals and 1.8 blocked shots per game.