Almost eight months after the New Orleans Pelicans won the lottery and the right to select Duke’s Zion Williamson, the chosen one finally made his NBA debut in a Wednesday night game against the San Antonio Spurs. Media converged on the Smoothie King Arena, ESPN assigned its grumpiest broadcast team of Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson and Zion was in the starting lineup at power forward. He started slowly, and the game was sloppy at first — and Van Gundy was ignoring the game and talking about hot dog eating records early on.
But in an electric stretch of the fourth quarter, Zion put up 17 points, three rebounds and two assists to remind everyone exactly why he’s the most hyped NBA prospect since LeBron James. He finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists in just 18 minutes, and while the Spurs held off a furious Pelicans comeback, it felt like Zion was the winner of the night.
Here’s 10 things we learned from Zion’s debut:
1. Nine months off makes you rusty: Zion’s last competitive basketball game was March 31 of last year, not counting the earthquake-interrupted Summer League game during which Zion didn’t play in the second half. You could see it in little things, like his five turnovers, some from simply mishandling passes on the move. But he also got comfortable by the fourth quarter, grabbing rebounds, finishing lobs, hitting teammates for easy buckets and knocking down effortless threes from the top of the arc. After two straight threes, he had perhaps his most impressive play, missing a layup against Jakob Poeltl, but using his speed and strength to zip around Poeltl, rebound his own miss and put it back. Not only did he get more comfortable throughout the game, he got far more comfortable through the fourth quarter when coach Alvin Gentry let him stay in the matchup for an extended stretch.
2. The Pelicans are going to have tremendous spacing: We knew that Zion could have similar gravity to Giannis Antetokounmpo, with defenses forced to pack the paint to stop him down low. Gregg Popovich, a pretty smart NBA coach, had defenders dropping way back on Zion, daring him to shoot. And while the Pelicans had trouble knocking them down, Zion’s gravity led to a lot of open shots on the perimeter. New Orleans is already third in the NBA in three-pointers — and fifth in percentage — and that should only improve. Especially if Zion is drilling outside shots with ease like he was in the fourth quarter.
3. Zion took a lot of outside shots during rehab: Zion had never made more than three three-pointers in a game before Wednesday night, when he hit four in a row in a fourth-quarter explosion. Clearly his restrictions on running didn’t keep him from putting up outside shots. Yes, his shot looks flat, but he’s shooting it with tremendous confidence. And if a defender is playing off him, it doesn’t matter if the shot has any arc to it, because there’s no one there to block it.
4. New Orleans is going to have tremendous size: For the first half of this season, there was a glaring Zion-sized hole on this roster. The Pels have a ton of depth at guard and on the wing, but they’ve been forced to play Brandon Ingram, who is listed at 190 pounds, nearly 1,000 minutes at power forward. Not only that, 6-foot-5 Josh Hart has played 150 minutes at the 4. It’s also pushed other small players into forward slots: 6-foot-3 Jrue Holiday has played nearly half his minutes at small forward, and Hart has played 80 percent of his minutes there. It’s going to really help New Orleans and its 25th-ranked defense to have defenders who can hold up down low — and free up Ingram to be a terror on the wing.
5. Zion has too much size: He’s listed at 285 pounds, but Zion is probably over 300 pounds right now. He was visibly winded in the first half, and carrying extra weight is discouraging for a guy with a history of joint injuries. The Pelicans restricted him to 18 minutes, and for most of the game it looked like a fitness decision, not injury caution. Of course, the bulk certainly helped when he was knocking Spurs out of the way with his posterior to grab contested rebounds. Zion’s never going to be skinny, and it’s hard to stay trim when he’s not playing, but it’s going to help his team a ton if that listed weight seems less like wishful thinking.
6. The Zion Iso Cam was creepy: ESPN offered a Zion-only feed on its streaming service, and we learned only two things. First, Zion puts his hands behind his back during the anthem, not over his heart. We’re not criticizing; ESPN cut to a T-Mobile commercial mid-anthem, which is far less patriotic. Second, it’s really unsettling to have a camera trained on a guy spending most of the game on the bench. It really felt like watching footage from a stalker, not the worldwide leader in sports.
7. Lonzo Ball is going to thrive alongside Zion: Not only do Lonzo Ball’s assist numbers benefit from having the biggest lob target in the league, sharing the court with Zion means plenty of open threes. Zion can hit Ball out of a double team, and unlike last year, Ball is actually knocking down those open shots. Having Zion on the backline of the defense will also let Ball and the other Pelicans guards play more aggressively on the perimeter, and it’s no surprise he had three steals in this game.
8. Zion is already the most popular New Orleans athlete not named Drew Brees: Even when Zion was easing himself into the game in the first quarter, the Smoothie King crowd went wild whenever he touched the ball. The fans were yelling at him to shoot in a way usually reserved for undersized college team managers taking the court in garbage time. And when he went out after clearly overstaying his minutes limit in the fourth, the crowd chanted, “We Want Zion!” John Bel Edwards must be relieved that then next gubernatorial election isn’t until 2023 in Louisiana, because Zion could get elected governor right now.
9. The Pelicans need to adjust to their new superstar: There were some growing pains for the Pelicans on Wednesday night: players standing too close on the perimeter, hesitant play alongside Zion and defensive miscommunications. Clearly, the electric atmosphere and the new teammate caused some nerves, as New Orleans put up enough bricks in the first quarter to build a skyscraper. The Pels' main concern should be acclimating Zion with Brandon Ingram, who has put up All-Star numbers in his first year as the primary offensive focus. It should work out — Ingram and Williamson complement each other skills — but it may be rough for a few weeks.
10. This team could make the playoffs ... if it wants to: The Western Conference is wide open at the bottom, with New Orleans four games out of the eighth seed. And despite losing ground to the rival Spurs, the Pelicans seem fully capable of a second-half charge to the playoffs. But it’s not clear they’ll fully commit to that. The team could trade some of its veterans on one-year deals (J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors?), and it may be understandably cautious with Zion’s workload the rest of the way. But the Pelicans already have plenty of draft assets from the Anthony Davis trade, and their young players, particularly the former Lakers, are sick of constantly losing. Don’t overwork Zion, sure, but don’t tank quite yet. Because a first-round matchup between the Lakers and Pelicans is so tasty that it could reverse the season-long ratings decline all by itself.
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