E'Twaun Moore dribbles past Toronto guard Kyle Lowry

Pelicans ready to tip off much-anticipated 2019-20 regular season in Canada

by Jim Eichenhofer

TORONTO – Two months from now, for only the third time in franchise history, the New Orleans Pelicans will play a game on Christmas, visiting the Denver Nuggets. But based on JJ Redick’s comments after practice Sunday, Christmas also arrives for every NBA player each October, when the 82-game schedule begins.

“You always look forward to the start of the regular season,” Redick said. “It’s like opening presents on Christmas morning. It’s that sort of feeling you had when you were 7 or 8 years old – there’s definitely an excitement about our team, about our group internally, and what we think we can do this year.”

Basketball fans everywhere will share similar enthusiasm Tuesday at 7 p.m. Central, when one of the most anticipated NBA seasons tips off in Toronto, with the defending NBA champion Raptors hosting New Orleans. The game earned the distinction of being the very first played among 1,230 on the league’s six-month docket, with the plan being for it to serve a dual purpose as Toronto’s “Ring Night” and the much-anticipated debut of No. 1 overall draft pick Zion Williamson. However, after dominating for long stretches during his four preseason appearances, the 19-year-old is not expected to be available Tuesday, sidelined by knee soreness for an undetermined period (UPDATE: Williamson underwent surgery on a torn meniscus in his knee and is expected to be out approximately 6-8 weeks before being cleared to return). Pelicans players are disappointed for Williamson that he won’t be able to officially start his pro career at Scotiabank Arena, but also understand that injuries are part of the NBA season. New Orleans will lean on its upgraded roster and improved depth without the Pelicans’ projected starting power forward.

“We have a deep team,” Redick said. “We’ll hold it down as best as we can without him. Obviously we need him back. Hopefully he takes his time and recovers fully.”

“We definitely wanted him (to play), but there is nothing we can do,” Ball said of Williamson’s injury. “We just have to hold the fort down until he gets back… He’s still on the team; it’s not like he’s missing the whole season. He’s going to be out a couple games, but he’ll be back strong.”

While Williamson’s debut will have to wait, Tuesday’s game against the first-time champion Raptors - who lost Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency to the Clippers - marks the opening of a new era for New Orleans. Numerous other key players will officially suit up for the Pelicans for the first time, including Redick, Ball, Derrick Favors, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, international veteran forward Nicolo Melli, as well as rookies Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes.

Not surprisingly given the team’s sweeping offseason personnel changes, Tuesday’s New Orleans starting five is likely to include only one returnee, guard Jrue Holiday. Alvin Gentry said after Sunday’s practice that “there is a good chance” the first-string group will be mostly replicated from the preseason finale at New York, consisting of Ball, Holiday, Redick, Ingram and Favors.

Regardless of who’s in the lineup and rotation, Pelicans coaches and players are excited about getting their first chance to compete in a game that will count in the standings.

“I think the guys are ready to play for real,” Gentry said. “They’re looking forward to it.”

“I’m ready,” Ingram said. “This is what we work all summer for.”

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