When Zion Williamson found out he’d been named a first-time NBA All-Star on Tuesday, it wasn’t exactly a scene from a storybook: The 20-year-old was driving to New Orleans’ practice facility to receive his second daily COVID test. Not long before TNT officially announced the Western Conference All-Star reserves on its pregame show, the news spread across the Internet and beyond, based on a report by Shams Charania of The Athletic.
Williamson was flooded by congratulatory text messages, after getting initial word from his agent that he’d been voted in by the West’s head coaches.
“My initial reaction was, ‘That’s crazy!’ ” Williamson said after Wednesday’s morning shootaround, as the Pelicans prepared to host Detroit tonight at 7.
Williamson’s name on the All-Star roster was not surprising to the majority of media members and fans who’ve watched the second-year pro dominate games, particularly in recent weeks. Several of Williamson’s best performances have come in February, including his most recent – he spearheaded the biggest comeback win in New Orleans franchise history Sunday against Boston.
“I’m honored,” Williamson said of being an All-Star. “It’s a blessing to be able to take part in that All-Star Game.”
The 2021 NBA All-Star Game will not be open to the public – Adam Silver described it recently as more of a “made-for-TV” event – but Williamson’s debut will take place in Atlanta, less than a three-hour drive from his hometown in South Carolina. Williamson recalled watching showcase basketball events like NBA All-Star when he began loving the game.
“As a kid, seeing all of those big events, like the All-Star Game, or whether it was college, high school, McDonald’s All-American, Jordan Brand (games), all those games, whenever you see those guys in it, you were like, ‘It’s just an honor to be in it,’ ” he said. “You wanted to work hard and have a chance to be able to make the game. So yeah, it was something I dreamed about growing up.”
Asked whether he will participate in the dunk contest – something fans have been clamoring to see since the day Williamson arrived in the NBA – the Duke product was coy, responding, “Who knows? That’s all I can say. Who knows? I might. You never know.”
The 2021 dunk contest will take place during halftime of the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, March 7.
Detroit scouting report
Offensive efficiency rank: 23 (107.5)
Defensive efficiency rank: 17 (111.3)
Net rating: 24 (-3.7)
Streak: Won 1
Go-to guy: Jerami Grant was the subject of considerable second-guessing during the abbreviated offseason, when he decided to leave contending Denver in free agency for a rebuilding Detroit squad, but the forward has proven to be more than capable of excelling in a much bigger role. He’s a frontrunner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, nearly doubling his scoring average from 12.0 last season to 23.3 with the Pistons. Grant has delivered six games of 30-plus points in 2020-21, topped by a career-high 43 at Chicago on Feb. 17.
On the rise: The No. 19 overall pick in the November draft, rookie Saddiq Bey has been a productive wing since earning more playing time this month. His breakout game occurred Feb. 12 in Boston, where he shot 7/7 from three-point range and racked up 30 points, sparking Detroit to an upset win on the Celtics’ home floor. Two nights later, he dropped in 16 points in a home win over New Orleans. Bey has reached double-digit scoring in eight consecutive games.
Previous game starting lineups
Tuesday win at Orlando
Dennis Smith, Svi Mykhailiuk, Saddiq Bey, Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee
Notes: This group is 1-0. Wayne Ellington is normally the starting shooting guard instead of Mykhailiuk, but 12-year NBA veteran Ellington was rested Tuesday in the first game of a back-to-back. … Detroit has used 12 different starting lineups, with the most common sporting a 4-7 record, but that one featured Blake Griffin (not with team) at power forward. … Smith’s two starts in a two-game series at Orlando were his first of this season.
NEW ORLEANS (13-17)
Sunday win vs. Boston
Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Willy Hernangomez
Notes: This group is 1-1, having lost Friday vs. Phoenix in its season debut. … Hernangomez may return to the second unit Wednesday, because normal starting center Steven Adams (ankle) is listed as probable. The Pelicans’ primary starters are 11-13 this season.
Pelicans keys to victory
KEEP ATTACKING IN TRANSITION
As Ball discussed after Tuesday’s practice, part of New Orleans’ excellent offensive performance lately has come from the Pelicans generating more open-court opportunities. The Pelicans rank No. 10 in the NBA in fast-break points this season, but they’re up to third in February, averaging 15.5 per game. The Lakers (16.5) and Golden State (16.3) are the only better transition offenses this month.
PRESSURE THE BALL Detroit has experienced major misfortune at point guard, with Delon Wright and lottery pick Killian Hayes both sidelined by injuries. Another PG who began this season with the Pistons, Derrick Rose, was recently traded to New York. As a result, the Pistons have been forced to improvise. Trade pickup Smith, rookie Saben Lee and former New Orleans player Frank Jackson have been entrusted with ballhandling duties.
DON’T LET THEM FIRE ON ALL CYLINDERS
Six Pistons players reached double-digit scoring in their Feb. 14 victory over the Pelicans, including two reserves (Josh Jackson, Mykhailiuk). The 123 points tallied were the most in regulation all season for Detroit.