Zion Williamson glided ever so nonchalantly into the Smoothie King Center on Wednesday. He strode down its hallways to the Pelicans locker room, shaking hands, smiling for all the cameras with each step.
Three months after the team’s future was originally scheduled to begin, the NBA’s new virtuoso finally made his debut against the Spurs, his injured right knee strong enough to support both his weight and the weight of the heaviest expectations any player has had since LeBron James made his debut in Cleveland 17 years ago.
Until Wednesday, Williamson was just a symbol of a reborn franchise, the seller of season tickets and team merchandize, the focus of an extraordinary marketing campaign. That has all changed now.
After his revealing performance in the Pelicans’ 121-117 loss, he is now officially a phenomenon. Just like we all assumed he was.
After struggling through the first three quarters – five points and four turnovers – Williamson lit up in the fourth, at one point scoring 17 consecutive points to bring his team back into a very important game in the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
“I thought he was deferring way too much,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said about Williamson’s start. “And I wanted him to be aggressive and I knew that he would make some mistakes, but I think what you saw there was a taste of once we really get settled in and he gets settled in, I think you can see that there’s a lot of things we can do with him and there’s a lot of potential there. It was good to see him do that. But I just think there’s a really, really high ceiling that he can reach.”
He scored in every way imaginable in just over three minutes, draining threes, powering his way to rim which the explosiveness that characterized his play as a freshman at Duke.
There was a wide-open three. A layup after a lob. Then another three. Then a put back. Then two more threes.
“After the first one, I was like, ‘All right, cool.’ Then the second one came, and I was like, ‘All right, boy, you been practicing!’ And then the third one, from that point on, the energy was crazy,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said after the game. “We’ve seen him do this since high school. This is what he does. As exciting as it was, is it really that much of a surprise?”
By the time he was done, Williamson had scored 22 points – a team record for a rookie debut. He was also 4-of-4 from three – the first rookie in NBA history to do that in his first game. And he grabbed seven rebounds.
“I think the way he came out was very poised. The way he played … was something you don’t see from somebody so young,” Holiday said. “For him to be able to come out here and do that in his first game is pretty elite.”
By the time he finally was taken out for the last time with 5:23 to play in the game, the air in the arena was filled with MVP chants.
“I’m not going to lie, that was different,” Williamson admitted. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that to that magnitude. I was just locked in on the game and helping my team win. So I just was trying to lock in.
“Just the energy the crowd brought, the energy the city brought, it was electric and I’m just grateful that they did that. It was a dream come true to finally get out there, but at the end of the day I did want to win, so just got to look to next game.”
The Pelicans are going to keep a close eye on Williamson all season. To be honest, he looks a little heavy at 285 pounds. Mark Jackson was hounding him about it early in ESPN’s telecast. At some point, you assume he will lose weight which will make him quicker and take some unnecessary stress of his knee.
When Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry took him out of the game for the final time, he did so because the team’s medical staff advised him to do so.
“And no, he couldn’t go back in the game, so don’t go there,” Gentry said. “Just because the medical people said that was it. …I don’t think anybody would be happy about it if you were playing at the level he was playing at, and then all of a sudden you had to come out of the game. I’m not the brightest coach in the world, but I wasn’t gonna take him out in those situations unless I was told to.”
Williamson was not happy. But this is the way its going to be for a while. And coincidentally, Williamson’s departure kicked off a Spurs run that put them back in control. Don’t think the Pelicans didn’t notice that.
“It was very hard. I’m 19, honestly in that moment I’m not thinking about longevity, I’m thinking about winning that game,” Williamson said. “It was very tough. … Me personally, I didn’t want any restriction. But I’m not a doctor or trainer, so I just got to listen to them.”
As time goes on, we’ll see what becomes of Williamson. The Pelicans say they don’t want to put too much pressure on the kid, but we all know it’s there. He has electrified the franchise and its city. They will be hinged to every step he takes.
In the meantime, the NBA is glad he’s back. The league can always use another highlight reel, another reason to make us all pay attention. Williamson is that and more.
“I’m glad he’s back,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told ESPN before the game. “You know it’s – a talent like that – you know he’s a great guy on top of it all. The whole world needs to see him. So I mean, obviously, it’s good for the Pelicans, but it’s good for basketball. He’s quite a package, both as a player and as a person.”