Due to an emergency family matter in mid-July, Zion Williamson went nearly two weeks without participating in a basketball game or team practice, including missing three New Orleans scrimmages vs. NBA teams. While his Pelicans teammates each played specific minute allotments in exhibition wins over Brooklyn, Denver and Milwaukee, the 20-year-old spent nine days away from the Orlando campus, then four additional days quarantining, per the NBA’s protocol for players returning to Disney.
After Williamson practiced with the Pelicans on Tuesday, many NBA observers hoped he’d immediately resume logging his average of 29 minutes per game in 2019-20, but that was never part of the Pelicans’ plan. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said after Friday’s practice that the team always expected to methodically incorporate Williamson into the mix. The No. 1 overall draft pick was on the court for 15 minutes in Thursday’s two-point loss to Utah. As part of the plan, Griffin said Williamson likely will not see a significant increase in minutes Saturday vs. the LA Clippers.
“It’s what our performance team was doing for literally every member of the roster,” Griffin said, alluding to the fact that no Pelican played heavy minutes in any scrimmage. “(Williamson) didn’t get the benefit of (playing in scrimmages). I realize it’s really detrimental to doing what we’re attempting to do – and that’s to make the playoffs – but if we’re going to have him at full strength coming through these games, he’s got to go through this process. There is no alternative, and there wouldn’t be for any other player.”
Griffin noted that several members of the Pelicans’ main rotation “were held to 15 minutes (in each scrimmage), based on a fixed approach to how much they were going to play… Zion didn’t get that opportunity. Unfortunately, he was 13 days removed from the group, in terms of following that plan, after not playing basketball for what amounts to four months (due to the NBA shutting down in March).
“So I appreciate the fact that everybody wants him to play 40 minutes (Saturday), but I can promise you he’s not going to. No mistakes were made yesterday relative to how this was handled, other than by me in not coming forward and expressing this in the clearest way possible. It’s not complicated. He will not play significant minutes in the next game, and he may not in the following game, quite frankly.”
Even if Williamson does not approach his customary playing time Saturday vs. the Clippers or Monday against Memphis, the Pelicans (28-37) know they have little margin for error, after falling four games behind the eighth-place Grizzlies (32-33) in the Western Conference standings.
Pelicans fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry compared what his team is facing to the deciding games of a playoff series.
“The big picture is we have seven games left to play, and all of those games are going to be like (a Game 7) for us,” Gentry said. “We have to approach it that way, knowing we need to win those games. We have to approach it like we’re playing (Game 7) against the Clippers and all of the other teams we’re playing. Most of those (upcoming opponents), we’re trying to catch or get in a position where we can (qualify for) the play-in game.”
New Orleans faces a difficult weekend test vs. the Clippers, who were a Paul George three-point attempt away from beating the top-seeded Lakers on Thursday, despite the Clips not having top reserves Lou Williams or Montrezl Harrell. Then a Monday matchup looms against the Grizzlies, who could be in position to deal a key blow to the Pelicans’ hopes of being eligible for the mid-August, 8 vs. 9 play-in round.
As key reserve Josh Hart outlined Friday, New Orleans entered the seeding games understanding the importance of each game. Thursday’s heartbreaking loss to Utah added even more urgency to the win-or-go-home situation.
“The clock is ticking – we can’t make any more excuses,” Hart said. “There is no time for us to slowly get back into it. We’re not the third, fourth or fifth seed in the West, (where a team) can slowly ramp up. We’ve got to hit the ground running. We have seven more games to get into the playoffs.”
Hart added that regardless of Williamson’s usage, the Pelicans must find a way to win games, something they did during a 10-4 stretch prior to the Duke product’s Jan. 22 debut.
“He’s a once-in-a-generation type player, so we’ve got to definitely look at the long term for him,” Hart said of easing Williamson back into the lineup. “We’ve got to go out and hoop, whether he has three minutes, five minutes, a quarter, whatever it is. We have to hoop when he’s out there, use him to our advantage. When he’s not, we have guys who are fully capable of stepping up and filling that void… Guys have to play bigger roles until he’s able to play without any restrictions. I think we’re very capable of doing that.”