Zion Williamson practices free throws at Sacramento

Zion Williamson return to Pelicans practice provides ‘lift in energy’

by Jim Eichenhofer

Nineteen games into his rookie season, Zion Williamson rapidly established himself as one of the NBA’s most exciting players, capable of bringing 17,000-plus fans to their feet in the Smoothie King Center at any moment. While the 20-year-old won’t have spectators to thrill in Orlando, his presence at Tuesday’s practice brought a certain level of excitement to another important group – his New Orleans teammates.

“He’s well-liked by teammates and likes being around his teammates,” Alvin Gentry said of Williamson rejoining the Pelicans in Central Florida. “Just to have him back in the gym is a real positive, a lift in energy when he’s in the building.”

Williamson left Orlando on July 16 to attend to an urgent family medical matter, but after a four-day quarantine, was back on the court Tuesday and participated in some aspects of New Orleans practice. Gentry said the No. 1 overall pick was part of 5-on-0 and 3-on-0 drills, but did not play any 5-on-5, something that will occur soon.

“It’s always good when someone (comes) back; it’s always refreshing to see their face and get energy from (them),” Pelicans reserve wing Josh Hart said. “His presence was there. We’re looking forward to him getting out there, tomorrow or Thursday, whenever it is. It’s always good to see someone, knowing they had to battle with some off the court stuff, to see them come back smiling and being professional.”

New Orleans’ second-leading scorer will practice again Wednesday, prior to Thursday’s seeding games opener vs. Utah. His status and readiness workload-wise for the Jazz will be evaluated over the next two days.

“It’s just a matter of figuring out where he is (physically) from a basketball standpoint,” Gentry said. “It’s been a little while since he’s been on the court.”

New Orleans managed to go 3-0 in scrimmages without Williamson, continuing a trend of success in-season, as the Pelicans compiled a 10-4 stretch prior to his Jan. 22 official debut. The team has been prepared to compete under any circumstance, but understands that it has a greater upside with Williamson in the lineup.

“We’re happy to have him back,” guard Lonzo Ball said. “He puts our team at full strength. We’re a lot better with him than without him. Just having him back to start the (seeding) games is great for us.”

New Orleans (28-36) will enter Thursday’s opener vs. Utah 3.5 games behind eighth-place Memphis (32-33) and must finish in at least ninth place – while remaining within four games or less of the Grizzlies – to have a chance to extend the season past Aug. 13. Regardless of Williamson’s impact, the Pelicans know they have little margin of error, creating palpable urgency to win immediately.

“We know we don’t have any time to ‘warm up,’ ” Ball said of not being able to ease into competition with games Thursday and Saturday. “We have to win as many games as we can of the next eight. We’re trying to make our practices as game-like as possible. I feel like that’s going to prepare us for the games that we need to win.”

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