Through three quarters, Zion Williamson’s NBA debut was a dud.
Williamson scored 17 straight Pelicans points in a 3:08 span to wake up a restless home crowd that had long waited for something to happen.
The Spurs won, 121-117. But Pelicans fans got their money’s worth with the thrilling fourth quarter from Williamson.
The numbers, and the 3s
Williamson finished his NBA debut with 22 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists on 8-of-11 shooting from the field. He did it all in 18 minutes as head coach Alvin Gentry heavily monitored his minutes in his first action since undergoing knee surgery on Oct. 21.
He did most of his damage from behind the arc, where he hit 4-of-4 3-pointers, all of them during that fourth-quarter scoring outburst.
Zion flips a switch
“He’s gonna be fine,” Gentry said during an in-game interview with ESPN in the midst of Williamson’s slow start. “Right now he’s just playing so conservative. He won’t be that way.”
It was a prescient moment for the Pelicans coach.
Williamson found his rhythm not with a bucket, but in leading a fast break. After showing visible frustration while turning the ball over five times and spending part of the game on an exercise bike to keep his surgically repaired knee warm, Williamson flipped a switch at around the 9:30 mark of the fourth.
He skied high to steal a defensive rebound from Spurs center Jakob Poeltl and led a fast break that ended with an assist on an E'Twaun Moore layup.
Zion with a MAN'S rebound and then shows off the point-forward skills 🔥 pic.twitter.com/1W2x6nEcFT— ESPN (@espn) January 23, 2020
It was the first flash of the remarkable athleticism he showed at Duke that made him the No. 1 pick in the draft.
The play prompted Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout. But the break in the action only appeared to fuel Williamson.
Williamson gets aggressive, finds his shot
On the first Pelicans possession out of the timeout, Williamson found himself unguarded with the ball at the top of the key beyond the arc. He didn’t hesitate, splashing home the 3-pointer that would ignite his scoring binge.
He followed it up with an alley-oop layup in traffic before hitting another 3-pointer. On his next bucket, he backed up Poeltl in the low post, where he missed a layup before outmuscling a pair of Spurs defenders for the rebound and putback.
By the time the run was over, he’d done everything but dunk as he brought the New Orleans crowd to its feet as the Pelicans had cut a 14-point third-quarter deficit to a 109-108 Spurs lead.
Williamson didn’t have the opportunity to close the game, as Gentry pulled him for good behind the urging of the Pelicans medical staff with 5:23 remaining. His nearly seven-minute stretch was by far the longest of the night after he had played three-to-four minute stretches to start each of the first three quarters.
Limited action from the start
Williamson’s first bucket would have to wait as his initial stint on the court was brief and scoreless as he went to the bench at the 8:09 mark of the first quarter having missed his only shot.
He got on the board when he returned to the court in the second quarter with a putback layup for his first NBA points.
Gentry said before the game that Williamson wouldn’t have a minutes limit, but would initially play in short bursts. He stuck to that plan as Williamson didn’t see the floor for more than seven minutes at a time.
A long time coming
The No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft out of Duke, Williamson hasn’t played since suffering a meniscus tear in the preseason. Initially projected to return by mid-December, Williamson made his debut 45 games into the 82-game regular season as the Pelicans approached the health of their prized rookie with extreme caution.
Williamson has been seen dunking during Pelicans warmups for weeks, but the team held off on his debut to ensure that he got in practice time and worked his way into game shape.
Entering the NBA with the most hype of any rookie since LeBron James, his presence has been notably absent through the first half of the season. The NBA built a significant chunk of its prime-time schedule around showcasing Williamson and the Pelicans.
Instead, national audiences have been treated to a young Pelicans team with talent but not ready to compete as they’ve got off to a 17-27 start without Williamson.
The league was ready more than ready on Wednesday as 120 credentialed media showed up at the Smoothie King center to cover Williamson, dwarfing the usual media audience of 20 for a Pelicans home game, according to ESPN’s Marc Spears.
Despite the slow start, the Pelicans are still in play for the No. 8 seed in the West, which they trailed by 3.5 games entering Wednesday.
With veteran point guard Jrue Holiday playing some of the best ball of his career and third-year forward Brandon Ingram breaking out at an All-Star level, the Pelicans will a compelling watch with Williamson in the lineup.
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