It was perhaps the most hyped-up late-January matchup to debut a rookie in NBA history, but it was warranted. Zion Williamson made his NBA debut on Jan. 22, nearly 45 games into the season. The Pelicans fans and frankly, the entire NBA community was eager to see how Williamson would come out and play.
The most explosive, yet unique player we’ve seen since 2003 when LeBron James was a rookie looked timid to start. You may be able to attribute that to him receiving limited minutes in small, inconsistent spurts. The Pelicans planned for him to play for only 4-6 minutes at a time.
Nothing turned out the way any of us expected. We’ve grown so accustomed to Zion’s highlight reel athletic plays, typically resulting in highflying dunks, that we slept on another impressive aspect of his game. For someone who’s 19-years old, standing at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds, Zion has incredible vision to go with his unhuman athleticism and that was on display tonight more than anything.
His biggest issue was trying to adjust to the speed of the game. Williamson had problems handling the ball, and while his court vision was on-point, he underestimated the speed of defenders as passing lanes closed much faster than he’s accustomed to from college. He had a team-high five turnovers in only 18 minutes. Again, while only playing a few minutes at a time, Zion couldn’t get into any rhythm and that could have been his problem through the first three quarters where he scored 5 points on 2-4 shooting.
Then the fourth quarter came. Williamson still didn’t display any of his high-flying dunks that we’ve all grown to love but he did show us that he’s been working on his shot while rehabbing his knee. Zion exploded for 17 of his 22 points in 3:08 of playing time while shooting 4-for-4 from three.
Williamson entered the fourth quarter with the Pelicans down 12 points. After his 17-point barrage of scoring, Williamson had the Pelicans down one point, 109-108, with 5:44 remaining in the game. While everyone, including head coach Alvin Gentry, wanted Zion to stay in the game to knock off the Spurs in storybook fashion, the NOLA medical staff decided to play it safe, persuading Gentry to pull Williamson at the height of his game.
The medical staff undoubtedly has Zion’s best interest at heart, but the Pelicans are (17-27) on the season and three games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. To make things sourer, San Antonio is now tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for the last playoff spot and New Orleans had an opportunity to gain a full game on them. Yeah, I get being cautious but the Pelicans need to get wins and Williamson would have delivered that for them. Being overly cautious in professional sports is a waste, and I highly doubt that 5:44 would have made a difference in his health. You have to allow professional athletes to be professional athletes and the goal should always be to win. NOLA’s goal wasn’t to win that game.
Regardless, if Williamson can add a respectable shot to go with his well-known athleticism, this is about to be a fun ride.