Zion Williamson dribbles in preseason at San Antonio

Jan. 22 vs. Spurs targeted for Zion Williamson to make NBA debut

by Jim Eichenhofer

Whether it’s been speculation about the possible return date of the NBA’s No. 1 overall draft pick, or uncertainty surrounding the recent availability of Zion Williamson’s teammates, there have been a great deal of question marks surrounding the New Orleans Pelicans lately. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations addressed those queries and several more during his Wednesday post-practice media availability, headlined by the news that Williamson’s target to make his regular season debut is Jan. 22 vs. San Antonio. Griffin half-jokingly noted that at least that determination should lessen how much time Williamson has to spend answering a question he seems to get every waking moment of his day.

“While he would have liked to have played already, he was very grateful that we put a target on it,” Griffin said of Williamson, “because I don’t think he gets asked anything by anybody other than ‘When are you going to play?’ Just ending that is probably a blessing.”

The Pelicans plan to have Williamson participate in at least another practice – possibly on Friday and/or Sunday – before he can be given the OK for game action.

“If all goes well from that, and assuming he is cleared by (the team’s medical staff) – which he is not quite yet – our anticipation is he’ll play his first game at home on the 22nd against San Antonio,” Griffin said. “This process has been really, really good. We’ve learned more (about Williamson) than we’ve probably taught him, frankly.”

There had been speculation that Williamson would debut tomorrow vs. Utah, but Griffin said that was never the case. The plan to target Jan. 22 as his debut was made today.

“Those decisions weren’t even reached until this morning, when our medical team got together with myself and Zion,” Griffin said. “Anybody who was guessing before wasn’t getting it from anyone who actually knew. So that’s really frustrating. It felt very much like people throwing darts, trying to take a stab at it.”

Asked whether New Orleans (15-26) ever considered shutting down Williamson for the entire 2019-20 season, Griffin quickly disagreed, saying “The nature of his injury wasn’t such that that was called for. Other players who’ve have had to make that determination, in almost every case, had a much more significant surgery. Blake Griffin fractured a kneecap – that’s a different issue. Zion knew from the very beginning that he was going to be able to play, and he wanted to play. There was a never a thought that he wasn’t going to play.”

Williamson potentially won’t play in back-to-backs when he returns to the game floor, but the Pelicans also don’t even have another back-to-back until March 3-4, delaying when that decision would need to be made. New Orleans only has four total back-to-backs remaining in ’19-20.

Ideally, the Pelicans would like to have Williamson and the rest of their key players able to play together over the course of the final three months of the season, to help evaluate the roster and the team overall. Griffin pointed out that it’s been difficult to get a read on New Orleans as a whole – not only has Williamson been out, but starters Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick and Brandon Ingram were all sidelined Monday at Detroit.

“If we’re healthy around (Williamson’s) return, it would be great,” Griffin said. “I think you’ve seen when we’re healthy, we’re pretty good. We can lock in and play really well against good teams. Unfortunately Derrick Favors’ absence is the one we’ve felt the most profoundly, and it’s because Fave in addition to Zion takes away two starting frontcourt players. But if we can get guys back one by one and have a full crew around (Williamson), I think it will be a lot of fun to get to see.”

Asked for his appraisal of New Orleans through 41 games, as well as what the Pelicans might do prior to the February trade deadline, Griffin reiterated the challenge that has been presented by the team’s recent health issues.

“What we really want to see is what it looks like (with a full roster available),” Griffin said. “That part has been somewhat complicated, because you never know who we’re going to have (playing on a nightly basis). So it’s been hard to get a grasp on who we are. More importantly, if we were going to be a buyer (at the trade deadline), what would we get that’s better than what we already have? That’s not an easy answer when you can’t see the whole (roster) together. We’re hopeful we have some time pre-deadline to see that.”

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