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Pelicans' Williamson progresses to full-court, 5-on-5 drills

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — When Zion Williamson finished his first full-court, five-on-five work since returning to practice last week, he spent extra one-on-one time with assistant coach Fred Vinson on the free throw line.

After all, the Pelicans are going to need Williamson to make free throws that matter sooner than later.

Coach Alvin Gentry wasn’t ready to specify a date when Williamson will make his NBA regular season debut – other than to virtually rule out Wednesday night’s game against Chicago – but did say Williamson generally looked “fine” in practice.

“Obviously conditioning is going to be the big thing there, but you know, you don’t lose your feel for the game and he’s a really good passer, a willing passer, so all of that stuff is going to be there,” Gentry said. “You’ve got to get yourself in basketball shape, conditioning-wise, and that’s going to be a process.

“He’s eager to be out there and all of his teammates are eager for him to be out there, but it’s a step by step process that we’ve got to take so that it’s done the right way,” Gentry addded. “There’s no date, per se, but we’re hoping that it’s soon.”

After the Pelicans host the Bulls, they hit the road for games at New York on Friday, Boston on Saturday and Detroit on Monday before returning home to play Utah on Jan. 16. If the Pelicans want Williamson to make his debut in New Orleans, that game could be a candidate, or the following game against the visiting Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 18.

“We want to make sure that everything is in place and we’ll take our time,” Gentry said, adding that there “definitely” would be minute restrictions placed on Williamson after he starts playing.

“Obviously, he’s not going to come out and be a 30-minutes-a-game guy,” Gentry said. “It’s just going to be a slow process to get him to the minutes that everybody wants to see.”

Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball – whose game has picked up lately to the tune of four straight 20-plus-point performances – predicted that Williamson’s impending return would be “amazing … especially for my game.”

“Our games just complement each other. When he gets out on the break he’s a big physical body,” Ball said, adding that ball-handlers have multiple options when choosing how to use Williamson’s 6-foot-6, 285-pound frame to create screens.

“It’ll open up a lot of things for shooters for sure, because people are going to (follow Williamson inside) and he’s going to make the right play,” Ball said.

Veteran guard E’Twaun Moore described Williamson as a “freak athlete,” adding that “it’s good to see him back running, getting up and down on the court, mixing with the guys.”