As mesmerizing as it was for New Orleans fans to watch Zion Williamson take over Wednesday’s game for a three-minute stretch of the fourth quarter, his teammates and coaches seemed even more excited about the possibilities of what’s next for the 19-year-old. Prior to being subbed out of Wednesday’s 121-117 loss to San Antonio, Williamson had racked up 17 consecutive points – draining four three-pointers and overwhelming the Spurs at times in the paint – providing a window into his unique talent and skill set. But for the Pelicans, that’s all it was: A small glimpse into the future.
“What you saw there is a taste of (his ability), once he really gets settled in,” fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said, alluding to Williamson’s long layoff since October preseason action. “You can see that there are a lot of things we can do with him, a lot of potential there. I just think there is a really, really high ceiling that he can reach.”
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet,” forward Brandon Ingram said. “He had some explosive rebounds and explosive (drives) to the rim a little bit, but I think as he gets comfortable, he’ll be even better.”
After knee surgery and spending the past three-plus months building up physically to his first official NBA game, Williamson played a bit tentatively in the first half Wednesday, opting to quickly move the ball when double-teamed and not looking for his shot much. It was somewhat understandable considering he’s 40-plus games behind his Pelicans teammates, but Gentry and multiple players told Williamson that it was OK to get more assertive within the offense.
“We talked at halftime that I thought he was just deferring way too much,” Gentry said. “(In the second half), he was much more comfortable, much more aggressive. He found out that everyone makes mistakes, and he just continued to play through them.”
Through three quarters of what had been a widely-discussed and exceptionally-hyped NBA debut, Williamson only had five points, but with the Pelicans trailing by double digits, he launched a memorable one-man rally, scoring 17 points in just 3:08. Veteran guard Jrue Holiday took note of how well Williamson responded to what could’ve ultimately become a frustrating way to begin an NBA career, especially for a high draft pick.
“I think he did well, in his first official NBA game,” Holiday said. “The poise he showed… you don’t see from somebody so young. On top of that, we’re almost in February, and he hadn’t played a game yet. For him to come out and do that in his first game is pretty elite.”
“I wouldn’t even call it struggling,” guard Lonzo Ball said of Williamson’s early-game performance. “This was his first game. I told him, get a feel for it and go from there. In the fourth he was comfortable.”
The Duke University product totaled 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists in just 18 minutes, with one negative being that he committed five turnovers. However, some of those miscues had the telltale signs of a player who’s a bit out of rhythm, from being on the sidelines for a lengthy period.
“He had a couple plays where he lost the ball,” Gentry said. “He’s not going to lose the ball on those particular plays (after more time on the court). That didn’t bother me at all. He’s just going to get better and better.”
Gentry listed numerous areas where Williamson will eventually help the Pelicans, but emphasized that “you’re not going to get all of that in the first night he plays. But now we have something we can look at and grow from.”
“I’m really excited,” Holiday said. “Adding Zion is a big part of what we want to do here and our success. Being able to acclimate him to everything and for him to feel comfortable, in turn it will make everyone else feel more comfortable, too.”
As impressed as Holiday was by what Williamson was able to do in Wednesday’s fourth quarter, some of the guard’s optimism about his rookie teammate had as much to do with the reputation Williamson has already developed, as a player at his best in the biggest moments. His 17-points-in-three-minutes seemed like more of the same to Holiday.
“The energy was crazy,” Holiday said of the atmosphere in the Smoothie King Center during Williamson’s bucket barrage. “But we’ve seen him do this since what, high school? As exciting as it was, is it really that much of a surprise? This is what he does.”