Pelicans entertain crowd of over 10,000 fans at annual open practice

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Two hours before New Orleans’ open practice was officially scheduled to begin Saturday, the line of fans waiting to get into the Smoothie King Center was already a couple thousand strong. The huge crowd – some of whom ended up sitting in the upper bowl after all seats were taken on the lower level – waited a long time to get in the building, but it only took a few seconds for them to get a glimpse of the future. On the first two possessions of a Pelicans intrasquad scrimmage, a play was run for No. 8 overall pick Jaxson Hayes to try to throw down an alley oop slam; followed by No. 1 pick Zion Williamson dunking with two hands at the other end.

Williamson would soar for other slams over the next hour-plus, then concluded the event with one of his patented highlight-reel dunks, as teammates cheered him. As impressive as the high-flying acrobatics were, Pelicans players and coaches spoke extensively afterward about the turnout. Over 10,000 fans were in the building, easily clearing the previous record of 7,500, which was set last year, coming off New Orleans reaching the 2018 Western Conference semifinals.

“Last year, I was very impressed with the number of people who came out, but this year was a completely different animal,” Pelicans fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said, complimenting a crowd that was not comparable to any previous version of the annual event. “The whole atmosphere, the energy in the building, the number of fans we had. The fact that there were people sitting in the upper deck is really a surprise. The enthusiasm in the building was really good.”

PELICANS OPEN PRACTICE PHOTOS

“It’s always fun to feel the support, feel the love,” Pelicans guard and captain Jrue Holiday said. “It was awesome.”

Williamson provided numerous highlights throughout the scrimmage, including a role reversal in which he tossed an alley oop to point guard Lonzo Ball for a dunk. One of the loudest cheers was actually a missed slam by Williamson with an extreme high degree of difficulty; he caught an alley oop pass and in one motion did a 360 while trying to dunk. The five-figure audience was ready to erupt, but the ball bounded off the back of the rim.

Williamson may have been too preoccupied with playing to notice, but many Pelicans fans sported his jersey in the Smoothie King Center. It was the Duke product’s first experience on his NBA home floor.

“To actually walk onto the court, where we’re going to be playing a lot, was great,” he said. “The lights were really bright out there, compared to the practice center. I think we’re going to have a lot of great memories here."

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