NEW ORLEANS — Red T-shirts emblazoned with white letters that said “NOLA Won’t Bow Down” at least provided souvenirs for the sellout crowd of 18,365 commemorating the debut of rookie sensation Zion Williamson.
For nearly 40 minutes, that seemed just about all that fans would be taking from this one.
Williamson committed his fifth turnover with 10:42 left to play, having contributed just five points in 12 minutes over a pedestrian first three quarters. Then he zapped Smoothie King Arena with a magical 3 minutes and 8 seconds of brilliance Wednesday night, making everyone nearly forget the visiting San Antonio Spurs actually left the building as 121-117 victors.
“I think he made his point,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry quipped.
Williamson also made good on all the hype surrounding him, the Pelicans, and the city of New Orleans over the last week. Most importantly, he walked away healthy after his first live action since fighting through an arduous rehabilitation process stemming from October arthroscopic knee surgery.
Williamson reeled off 17 straight points in the fourth quarter, and per the Elias Stats Bureau, became the only player in history to shoot 4-of-4 from 3-point range in his NBA debut.
Along the way, Williamson joined a select group of players that scored more points than they accumulated minutes on the floor (minimum 15 minutes played) in their NBA debuts. With 22 points in just 18 minutes on the floor, Williamson now finds himself in the company of players such as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (then known as Chris Jackson) — who scored 26 points in 25 minutes back in 1990 with the Denver Nuggets, as well as Willie Burton (1990), Julius Erving (1976) and Johnny Neumann (1976).
“It was everything I dreamed of except for the losing,” Williamson said. “Just the energy the crowd brought, the energy the city brought, it was electric. I’m just grateful that they did that. It was a dream come true to finally get out there. But at the end of the day, I did want to win.”
Williamson’s onslaught started with 8:52 remaining on a 27-foot 3-pointer off an assist from Lonzo Ball with the Pelicans trailing by eight points. Twenty-five ticks later, Ball tossed Williamson an alley-oop for a layup. Ball dished another dime for another Williamson 27-footer with 7:53 remaining. Thirty-one seconds later, Williamson scored on a putback layup after Jakob Poeltl initially blocked his shot.
“The energy was there from warmups,” Ball said later. “That is the most people I have seen coming out before the game even started. They were ready to go tonight and helped us get back into the game for sure.”
As Williamson dribbled the ball at the line for the first of two free throws, the sellout crowd whipped into a frenzy, screaming “M-V-P, M-V-P, M-V-P!”
The moment surprised Williamson, who later said, “I’m not gonna lie, that was different.” Williamson attributed his long-range accuracy to all the time sidelined recovering from right knee surgery.
“I’m gonna just say that when you’re not able to move around and do athletic movements for a while, the only thing you do is just shoot spot-up jumpers,” Williamson said. “I guess that was the result of that.”
He did that and just invigorated the crowd, and they really played energetic the rest of the basketball game. They got fired up.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
The Pelicans entered the game wanting to limit Williamson’s minutes by playing him short spurts. Williamson played 12 minutes over the first three quarters, hitting 2 of 3 from the floor and 1 of 2 from the free-throw line for five points with four turnovers.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich never expected the outburst that would come next.
In the locker room at halftime, Gentry, Jrue Holiday and Darius Miller all pulled aside Williamson to encourage him to stop deferring and to just play his game.
“Up until that point, he had five points in the game,” Popovich said. “And we went to a zone and he made four 3s in a row. Before that, if you said, ‘Who is going to shoot four 3s?’ We would probably rather have him do that. They were scoring like crazy, and he did that and just invigorated the crowd, and they really played energetic the rest of the basketball game. They got fired up.”
But Gentry, on orders from New Orleans’ medical staff, would soon cool off Williamson by sitting him with 5:22 remaining.
It wouldn’t be long before the Smoothie King Center crowd started chanting again.
“We want Zion! We want Zion! We want Zion!” they screamed in vain trying to convince Gentry to re-insert the prized rookie with the Pelicans attempting to mount the late comeback.
“I understand where the fans are coming from, but we’re also looking long term,” Holiday said. “It’s kind of a dual thing in my mind. Would I want him to be out on the court and would I want him to run to the scorer’s table and check in? Yeah, but we’ve got 35-plus games left. That’s really what’s important.”
Williamson admitted the difficulty in sitting during the waning moments.
“It’s very hard, honestly,” Williamson said. “I’m 19, and in that moment, I’m not thinking about longevity. I’m thinking about winning that game, so it was very tough.”
Still, Williamson took the biggest step in his recovery Wednesday night by simply stepping on the court and playing a game for the first time since Oct. 13. With that finally out of the way, Williamson was asked if he can now return to some level of normalcy.
For Williamson’s debut, the Pelicans’ public relations department issued a total of 160 media credentials. That number is closer to 30 or 40 on a normal night.
So just as Williamson spoke, Holiday abruptly cut off the rookie.
Looking over the crowd stuffed in a room down the hall from the locker room, Holiday said, “It’s not gonna be normal for him. This is gonna be normal.”
Williamson looked over at Holiday and smiled.
“It was nice to experience those emotions,” he said. “It was good to get back out there obviously, but I didn’t have the outcome that I wanted.”
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