Over six months after making his scintillating preseason debut, Zion Williamson will finally appear in an NBA game tonight. Williamson has missed the past six months recovering from a torn meniscus with the rookie having surgery on his knee in October. The Pelicans decided to be overly cautious with his rehab, and he now takes the pro hardwood for the first time.
With the Pelicans hosting the Spurs Wednesday night, Williamson will start at the power forward spot as the Pelicans look to make a playoff push. However, that’s a long-term look. Williamson will look to take advantage of a league-average San Antonio defense, one whose starting bigs have nowhere near enough athleticism and size needed to match up with him.
Follow along here live during the game for everything you need to know during Williamson's debut:
A warm-up attraction
Zion looks pretty spry in his pregame warm-ups, catching lobs and throwing down reverse dunks like he did in Durham.
If Zion himself wasn’t enough to power this game, ESPN’s hype video certainly put this one over the top, with a compilation of highlights from his time at both Duke and Spartanburg Day School. With him coming out to thunderous applause, the crowd is clearly ready to see him play.
Zion’s first NBA stat is a turnover, a pass behind Derrick Favors. His second is an assist, a perfect pass to a cutting Ingram that leads to a slam dunk.
First career bucket
Zion checks back in to start the second, the only starter among four Pelicans’ reserves. After the ESPN booth reports that New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry plans to play him in “three-to-six-minute bursts,” he is able to outmuscle the San Antonio bigs for a rebound and put the ball back up for his first NBA points.
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Zion checks out after four minutes at power forward and one at center. He played good defense against Trey Lyles and LaMarcus Aldridge, allowing neither to attempt a shot, and moved the ball well on offense. Curiously, the Pelicans have not tried to get him shots tonight, using the rookie as a roll man only a few times and opting to move the offense through E’Twaun Moore and Josh Hart. This game figures to be underwhelming if Gentry doesn't look for ways to get the No. 1 overall pick the ball.
An uneventful first half
With the first half in the books, Zion has played eight minutes, recording two points on two shots, an assist, three rebounds and two turnovers. The Pelicans are -1 in his minutes, but he has certainly not been their cause for concern. He figures to start the second half and play through the eight-minute mark, though the Pelicans would do well to actively look for him more often, as the Spurs’ backcourt defense has stepped up thus far.
Gentry told ESPN at halftime that Zion was a bit deferential with the ball to help fit into the offense. He certainly wasn’t deferential in blowing by Aldridge and drawing a foul. He hits one of his free throws to bring his points up to three on the evening.
Second field goal
An excellent cut by Zion gets him an easy layup off a Jaxson Hayes pass, but he follows that up with both a blown assignment—giving Lyles an easy dunk—and a sloppy turnover. He goes to the bench with four more minutes in the books, looking every bit the debutant he is.
Zion spearheads fourth-quarter run
Gentry on Zion through three quarters: “Right now he’s just playing so conservative.” Zion immediately drives hard into the paint, and puts on a dazzling spin move, but can’t get his jumper to fall. His next touch results in another turnover.
A quick run by New Orleans, led by Zion, forces the Spurs to call a timeout. He recorded two assists and a rebound during that run, but looked a bit out of place at times, including a mental error where he allowed Jakob Pöltl to box him out. Zion’s athleticism has allowed him to overcome these issues, though, and he is already showing his innate talent.
Zion has now converted on six of his last six field goal attempts, plus a free throw, on the Pelicans’ last seven possessions to bring New Orleans back into the game. He’s hit not only his first three, but his first four threes, in addition to two layups. Gentry and Ball clearly decided to get the rock to Williamson more often in these extended minutes, and he has rewarded them handsomely.
Zion benched, Spurs pull away
With five minutes left, Zion is almost certainly done for the evening. Though he scored the Pelicans’ last 17 points—and assisted on the preceding four—New Orleans is sticking to a strict three-to-six-minute limit for his stints on the floor. His final line: 22 points on 7-for-11 from the field including 4-of-4 from three in 18 minutes, seven rebounds, three assists, five turnovers and a +3 on/off rating.
Despite Zion’s capable defense on the San Antonio bigs, the Pelicans’ bench bigs were dreadful against Aldridge and Pöltl. That, plus the Spurs’ world-class backcourt defense, have allowed San Antonio to weather even Zion’s supernova. Regardless of the final score, this will go down as one of the greatest debuts in NBA history.
Spurs take the win, Zion takes the headlines
FINAL: San Antonio 121, New Orleans 117. Zion loses his first game, but leaves the entire country with one heck of a first impression.