Almost eight months after the New Orleans Pelicans won the lottery and the right to select Duke’s Zion Williamson, the chosen one finally made his NBA debut in a Wednesday night game against the San Antonio Spurs. Media converged on the Smoothie King Arena, ESPN assigned its grumpiest broadcast team of Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson and Zion was in the starting lineup at power forward. He started slowly, and the game the game was sloppy at first — and Van Gundy was ignoring the game and talking about hot dog eating records early on.
But in an electric stretch of the fourth quarter, Zion put up 17 points, three rebounds and two assists to remind everyone exactly why he’s the most hyped NBA prospect since LeBron James. He finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists in just 18 minutes, and while the Spurs held off a furious Pelicans comeback, it felt like Zion was the winner of the night.
Here’s 10 things we learned from Zion’s debut:
1. Nine months off makes you rusty: Zion’s last competitive basketball game was March 31 of last year, not counting the earthquake-interrupted Summer League game during which Zion didn’t play in the second half. You could see it in little things, like his five turnovers, some from simply mishandling passes on the move. But he also got comfortable by the fourth quarter, grabbing rebounds, finishing lobs, hitting teammates for easy buckets and knocking down effortless threes from the top of the arc. After two straight threes, he had perhaps his most impressive play, missing a layup against Jakob Poeltl, but using his speed and strength to zip around Poeltl, rebound his own miss and put it back. Not only did he get more comfortable throughout the game, he got far more comfortable through the fourth quarter when coach Alvin Gentry let him stay in the matchup for an extended stretch.
2. The Pelicans are going to have tremendous spacing: We knew that Zion could have similar gravity to Giannis Antetokounmpo, with defenses forced to pack the paint to stop him down low. Gregg Popovich, a pretty smart NBA coach, had defenders dropping way back on Zion, daring him to shoot. And while the Pelicans had trouble knocking them down, Zion’s gravity led to a lot of open shots on the perimeter. New Orleans is already third in the NBA in three-pointers — and fifth in percentage — and that should only improve. Especially if Zion is drilling outside shots with ease like he was in the fourth quarter.
3. Zion took a lot of outside shots during rehab: Zion had never made more than three three-pointers in a game before Wednesday night, when he hit four in a row in a fourth-quarter explosion. Clearly his restrictions on running didn’t keep him from putting up outside shots. Yes, his shot looks flat, but he’s shooting it with tremendous confidence. And if a defender is playing off him, it doesn’t matter if the shot has any arc to it, because there’s no one there to block it.
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