Zion Williamson on debuting for red-hot Pelicans: ‘It’s very exciting to come back at this time’

Zion Williamson hoped to make his official NBA debut three months ago, but that highly-anticipated event was put on hold by a knee injury. The No. 1 overall draft pick acknowledged Tuesday that his rehabilitation period required substantial patience and came with moments of frustration, but the 19-year-old also benefited from some very helpful advice from his mother, Sharonda.

“My mom always looks at me and says, ‘Nobody told you this was going to be easy,’ ” Williamson said, alluding to the adversity he faced prior to his Wednesday regular season debut vs. San Antonio (8:30 p.m., ESPN, Fox Sports New Orleans, 100.3 FM). “It’s a part of the journey. I embrace it.”

After undergoing knee surgery in mid-October, the Duke University product has had time to focus on fine-tuning some of the basics of his body, including how he runs and lands. Asked whether his unexpected stretch off the court could help him long-term, Williamson again referred to something Sharonda recently told him.

“That’s exactly what my mom said,” Williamson noted. “She said it was time to focus on my body, focus on any small mechanics that need to be fixed. I think (the past three months) does help with future injuries. It’s something I have to continue, to have less of a chance to get hurt. I talked with the training staff, and it’s about having consistency and sticking with the program.”

In the meantime, the South Carolina native is 24 hours from returning to the Smoothie King Center hardwood in a game for the first time since an October preseason matchup vs. Utah. Although it’s probably impossible to keep expectations reasonable for one of the most touted college players of the last 20 years, veteran New Orleans players have repeatedly said they don’t need Williamson to do anything beyond what he normally does on the court.

“We’re not here to think he (needs) to save us,” guard Jrue Holiday said, after scoring 36 points Monday in a win at Memphis. “We want his energy, rebounding, explosiveness. He’s a threat offensively obviously. I don’t see anyone who’s able to compete with him at the rim.”

“Just come in and play his game,” guard Lonzo Ball said of his advice. “Don’t put too much pressure on himself. He’s still 19, he’s still a rookie, he’s got a lot to learn. We’re happy to have him back.”

“We said this right from the start: We’re not expecting him to ride in on a white horse and save our franchise,” fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said. “He is a very good basketball player we’re going to add to the mix, and hopefully the chemistry of our team will stay where it is and we’ll be able to win more games.”

New Orleans started the season 1-7 without Williamson and later endured a 13-game losing streak, but the Pelicans (17-27) have gone 11-5 since, able to beat several quality opponents prior to Williamson’s debut.

“It’s very exciting to come back at this time,” Williamson said. “We did go through a bad stretch, but things turned around. Everyone has been playing better and now I’m looking to join in and have fun.”

Asked about his incorporation back into the Pelicans’ lineup, the rookie said he expects to need some time to get acclimated, but that it shouldn’t take too long.

“I think there will be a learning curve, but it won’t be anything dramatic,” Williamson said. “We’re pros. We will adapt after a game or two.”

Gentry expects the environment Wednesday in the Crescent City to be “a circus,” given all of the attention surrounding Williamson’s debut – the game was added to the national TV docket and numerous media have arrived to cover it – but the coach is also looking forward to putting it in the rearview mirror. As a result of the Pelicans’ recent surge, they are back in realistic contention for a playoff spot in the West, something that seemed inconceivable a month ago.

“It’s going to be good to get (Williamson) out there,” Gentry said. “The big thing for us is to get him out there, so that all of this (distraction) goes away. Then try to figure out rotations and how we’re going to play. We’ll try to integrate him into what we’re doing.”