NEW ORLEANS — Zion Williamson was finally cleared for takeoff, but he sent the NBA and the Smoothie King Center into delirium by barely leaving his feet.
After some largely forgettable quick and monitored stints, Williamson shook off the nerves and woke up a sleepy crowd in unexpected fashion during his NBA debut, launching tippy-toed 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to bring the New Orleans Pelicans back into contention against the San Antonio Spurs.
An anxious and hopeful fanbase was rewarded for 44 games of patience during a mini-explosion, as Williamson scored 17 straight points — including four triples — to announce his presence.
To take over the Pelicans.
To take over the league.
It didn’t matter that the Pelicans didn’t sustain their rhythm when Williamson was removed from the game, losing 121-117 in front of a nationally televised audience.
Nor did it matter that Williamson was taken out after just 18 minutes due to the medical staff wanting to keep his minutes at a workable number before fully unleashing him.
“I ain’t the brightest coach in the world, but I wasn’t gonna take him out in those situations unless I was told to,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said.
Williamson’s eruption happened in three minutes, eight seconds, lifting a crowd and buoying the hopes of the NBA’s league office and its television partners that have gone all-in on Zion. Even the usually prickly Gregg Popovich made note of the hoopla and gave Williamson the ultimate respect by sending double teams his way as soon as he touched the ball inside.
“It feels like you’re seeing a new generation and you get to be right in the middle of it,” Popovich said. “I can remember my first days as an assistant for Larry [Brown], being mesmerized sitting on the bench watching Michael [Jordan] go up and down the court. I don’t even know if I knew what was going on in the game, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
“I think about that, and this generation coming in. It’s been a lot of fun to see these guys come. Come and go [laughs]. I’ve seen a lot of talented guys. Who could not enjoy that?”
The home faithful let its feelings be known when Williamson was benched after his explosion — per the Pelicans’ cautious plan — chanting, “We want Zion!” when the veteran Spurs began to pull away.
“I’m not gonna lie, that was different,” Williamson said, also referring to the crowd’s “MVP” chants at the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter when he was at the foul line. “I don’t think I heard it to that magnitude. I was locked in on the game.”
For what it’s worth, he wasn’t happy with having to watch the final 5:23 of the game.
“I’m 19. Honestly, in that moment, I’m not thinking about longevity,” Williamson said. “I’m thinking about winning that game. It was very tough. I don’t want any restrictions, but I’m not a doctor or trainer.”
The 22 points Williamson scored will be noted as the start of a new day, and even though the attention won’t be as heavy as it was on Wednesday, having game-changing moments will be commonplace for him.
“There’s not gonna be normal for him. This is gonna be normal,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said, intercepting a question for Williamson. “The way he plays, it’s something he can do every day. We’re here to help him and for him to help us too. He’s waited a long time for this and he’s really excited to play — speaking for Zion [laughing].”
There was no “Hello, world!” slam like LeBron James had in Sacramento 17 years ago, and no rim-rattling jam that displayed his pogo-stick legs or no pick-a-spot on the backboard alley-oops from Holiday or Lonzo Ball.
The Pelicans didn’t introduce him first or last, wanting to keep some level of perspective, but the crowd cheered his first four-minute stint with a standing ovation.
Despite his five turnovers — the last occurring the moment before he exploded — he played a smart, unselfish game, deferring to his teammates and they deferred back to him once he got going.
“I think he made his point, and he’ll continue to get better,” Gentry said. “You’ll see that. It’s his first NBA game, but the third time he went out there, I think he was much more comfortable and aggressive. It’s just the relief to have one game under his belt and all this goes away and he can just play.”
The game was always bound to be more spectacle than athletic showcase, as matching the hype was an unrealistic expectation. But the hype won’t subside, and as critical as he is to the Pelicans’ franchise, he means even more to the league.
The “why” is simple: Because aside from Stephen Curry, what NBA star is effervescent, marketable and associated with just one franchise for the foreseeable future?
Assuming Williamson lives up to this, he’s not going anywhere. Between his rookie-scale deal and restricted free agency, it’ll be awhile before anyone can start the never-ending rumor mill, if he even wants to leave New Orleans.
The NBA can count on him for performance and staying power — a necessary quality considering the nomadic nature of today’s stars.
It’s fun now, and it should be. New Orleans doesn’t have a long history of winning basketball, but it has shown an insatiable passion for the New Orleans Saints and LSU football.
Football is king in the Bayou, but there’s room for a fanbase to grow with an amenable teenager who wants to please his coaches and teammates on the floor, while aiming to bulldoze opponents with a halfback-with-hops mentality.
Who in Louisiana wouldn’t gravitate toward that?
He’s already shown he can deliver.
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