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Zion Williamson's debut: The stats and quotes

Some notable numbers and thoughts on the Pelicans rookie's anticipated NBA beginning

Zion Williamson’s sublime 17-point surge in a span of about three minutes could very well become part of New Orleans’ pro sports lore — even if the final score won’t.

Although the Pelicans ultimately fell to the visiting San Antonio Spurs, 121-117, on Wednesday night, that couldn’t overshadow the tantalizing performance Williamson delivered in defeat. After a three-month wait, Pelicans and NBA fans finally got a small look at what Williamson might be capable of and delighted in it all.

We could go on and on about this game, but instead we’ll attempt to put it in context with some stats from the night as well as quotes from both Pelicans and Spurs players about Williamson’s beginning …

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1. A unique club

Williamson finished with 22 points and shot 8-for-11 overall, which works out to a 72.7% clip. In doing so, he joined a unique cast of characters who had 20 or more points and shot 70% or better in their first NBA game. Worth noting is that only one player on this list — Steve Smith — was a former Draft lottery pick like Williamson. Additionally, all five players (Smith, Gordan Giricek, Hot Rod Williams, Ron Anderson and Billy McKinney) were all traded at least twice in their NBA careers and only Smith was a former All-Star.

Scoring 22+ points on 70% shooting, career debut
Player (Team) Date Game Result
Zion Williamson (Pelicans) Jan. 22, 2020 Pelicans vs. Spurs 121-117 L
Gordan Giricek (Grizzlies) Oct. 30, 2002 Grizzlies vs. Mavs 119-108 L
Steve Smith (Heat) Nov. 2, 1991 Knicks vs. Heat 107-93 W
Hot Rod Williams (Cavs) Nov. 1, 1986 Cavs vs. Bullets 113-106 W
Ron Anderson (Cavs) Oct. 26, 1984 Cavs vs. Sixers 111-101 L
Billy McKinney (Kings) Oct. 15, 1978 Kings vs. Sonics 115-105 L

2. Making the minutes count

In his first NBA game, the Pelicans were fairly conservative with Williamson’s minutes. He had logged just under 12 minutes by the start of the fourth quarter (11 minutes, 41 seconds officially) and logged another 6:37 in the fourth quarter to bring his total to 22 minutes. In doing so, he joined a slew of former rookies who also got a lot of work done in limited minutes …

More pts than minutes played in NBA debut (Minimum 15 min.)
Player (Team) Date Stats
Zion Williamson (Pelicans) Jan. 22, 2020 22 pts in 18 min
Chris Jackson (Nuggets)** Nov. 10, 1990 26 pts in 25 min
Julius Erving (Sixers)* Oct. 22, 1976 17 pts in 16 min
Johnny Neumann (Braves)* Oct. 21, 1976 21 pts in 19 min
* = had prior debut in ABA | ** = now known as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

3. Even more Zion stats nuggets …

A smattering of quick-hitting things to know about Williamson’s debut:

  • Per Elias Sports, Williamson scored 22 points in 18:18 of action, which works out to 1.20 points per minute. That’s the most ppm in a player’s debut in the shot-clock era (via ESPN Stats & Info).
  • He went 4-for-4 on 3-pointers against the Spurs, becoming the first player to not miss on 3-pointers on four or more attempts in his NBA debut.
  • His 22 points were the most in a Pelicans debut, surpassing the 21 points Anthony Davis had in his debut on Oct. 31, 2012.

7 notable quotes on the debut

A game as big as this one certainly had folks talking, whether it was Williamson’s teammates or players and coaches from the Spurs. Here’s a collection of some of the best comments about Zion’s debut:

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“I wanted him to be aggressive, and I knew that he would make some mistakes, but you know I think what you saw there is a taste of once we really get settled in and he gets settled in, you can see that there’s a lot of things we can do with him. There’s a lot of potential there. It was good to see him do that, but you know I think there’s a really really high ceiling that he can reach. So we’ll just continue on, and we’ll continue to practice.” — Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry

“His first official NBA game is against a pretty good team so, honestly I think the way he came out was very poised. The way he played, and even around us, and bringing energy especially down the stretch was something that, I guess you don’t see from somebody so young. Even on top of that, we are almost in February and he hadn’t played a game yet, so for him to be able to come out here and do that in his first game … is pretty elite.” — Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday

“I wouldn’t even call it struggling. I mean, it was his first game. He told me before the game started he was going to ease his way into it. I told him to get a feel for it and then go from there. In the fourth, I think he was comfortable and they were sagging off of him so he was taking his shots.” — Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball

“Up until that point, he had five points in the game. 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 innovated [sic] the crowd and they played really energetic the rest of the basketball game. They got fired up. … Before the 3s, he did a couple of things that were pretty cool. … I think as the game went on, he started to feel his feet a little bit and he started to be who everybody thinks he is.” — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, on Williamson’s fourth quarter

“He’s special. Anybody who has followed basketball the last two years and seen the talent he has… Hope he can stay healthy and be able to put it together. The sky is the limit for him.” — Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan

“To start the game, he wasn’t going 100 miles an hour trying to get that first bucket and get that monkey off his back. He made the right plays and I think that’s the biggest thing, especially for someone (his) age. With so many eyes on you, and so much pressure on you, it’s easy to conform and whether we win or lose have your debut be successful. He went out there and made the right plays and played well defensively.” — Pelicans guard Josh Hart

“I don’t think I heard it. In those moments of the game I’m more focused in on trying to knock the free throw down, which I didn’t tonight. There’s a lot of love and support in the building and we enjoy it.” — Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram, on Williamson’s getting MVP chants

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Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.