Zion Williamson puts on historic three-minute show in NBA debut, somehow exceeds extraordinary hype
In the most anticipated NBA debut since LeBron James first suited up for his hometown Cavaliers in 2003, Zion Williamson, after sitting out the first three months of the season with a torn meniscus, took the court for his first regular-season game with the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday. And he put on a three-minute show that nobody, in a million years, could’ve ever expected.
It took a while for Williamson to find his way. He scored two points in the first half and looked supremely out of sorts, playing in choppy four-minute stints that stunted any semblance of rhythm he might’ve been able to establish. But then came the fourth quarter, when Williamson exploded for 17 consecutive points — including four 3-pointers — in 3 minutes, 29 seconds of action.
Obligatory mention: The Pelicans lost the game, 121-117, to the Spurs.
Nobody cares about that.
Well, surely the Pelicans care. They came in having won 10 of their past 14 games and were, and still are, within reasonable range of a playoff berth. But if they wanted to win that bad, they probably should have let Zion stay in the game. Instead they strictly adhered to a minutes restriction and sat him for the final five minutes right when he was in the middle of burning the Smoothie King Center to the ground.
Count me among those highly frustrated by this decision. I understand taking the long view and all, but if a 19-year-old can’t play a few more minutes when he’s in that kind of rhythm, he probably shouldn’t have been playing in the first place. Per ESPN’s Marc Spears, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry wanted to leave Williamson in, and you could see him call a presumed sub for Zion back from the scorer’s table on multiple occasions. But New Orleans’ medical staff wanted Zion to come out, and ultimately their word won.
But not without Zion pleading his case.
Regardless of who’s call it was, the Pelicans pulling the plug on that performance might’ve been the biggest buzzkill I’ve ever witnessed watching an NBA game. Of course the fans were chanting “We want Zion!” as he sat on the bench watching the Spurs reestablish control of the game down the stretch. He’s the No. 1 reason they paid good money to be there in the first place.
But I digress. There’s a bigger picture to keep in mind here, and the Pelicans’ thousand-watt future can’t get here soon enough. Brandon Ingram is a star. Lonzo Ball is becoming the player he was supposed to be with the Lakers. This is what it felt like when Zion was coming out of summer league, where he played like a man among boys and the Pelicans were everyone’s favorite playoff dark horse.
They may have dug their hole too deep this season, but assuming Zion remains healthy (say your prayers), it’s impossible not to be downright giddy about what this team has a chance to become in almost the immediate aftermath of losing Anthony Davis — which would normally cripple most franchises, let alone the smallest market in the league, for years, if not a decade.
Williamson finished his debut with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including a perfect 4-for-4 from three, to go with seven boards and three assists in 18 minutes. Per ESPN, the 17 fourth-quarter points are the most any player has scored, in any quarter, while playing in his first game over the past 20 years while the 22 total points are the most any player in the shot-clock era has scored in his debut while playing fewer than 20 minutes.
That’s a long way of saying Williamson was electrifying, and I don’t use that word lightly. In those three minutes and change, he showed just about everything in his arsenal. He posted up and made quick, decisive moves to the basket. He flew in for boards and scored off quick-second-jump put-backs. Obviously he shot the lights out, and while he clearly won’t shoot like that most nights, he established right away that if you sag off him he can make you pay.
People love to talk about his power and athleticism, for obvious reasons, but he’s such a smart player, too, who consistently exhibits a great court sense and feel for what’s happening around him. Look here as he started the possession on the perimeter, only to recognize that there was no big man at the rim and immediately moved into a seal post position for a pass over the top:
Three of the plays I loved most from Zion were passes. In the first half he recorded his first career assist by calmly recognizing a double team and slinging a pinpoint pass to a cutting Ingram:
Here again in the first half, Zion grabbed a board and went coast to coast until the defense forced him to give it up, at which point he found E’Twaun Moore on a kick-out pass for a three.
Get used to seeing this. Zion has a clean handle and he’s a freight train in the open court. Teams are going to have to pack the paint when he’s flying downhill, similar to the way they have to with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons, meaning that kick-out pass to the shooters those defenders desert is going to be a major weapon.
In the second half, Williamson did it again, when he soared in for the rebound before he immediately turned and started his own break, ultimately finding Moore at the perfect angle for an easy finish.
That is elite point guard stuff. Keeping his head up, the willingness to pass ahead rather than keep the ball in his hands, splitting two defenders at an angle with the in-stride dime that leads Moore right to the basket. With Ingram, Ball, Zion, Jrue Holiday, any one of these guys can lead the break. They can all handle. They can all pass. They can all get to the rim.
Which one do you converge on?
The Pelicans are really talented, and the core is young. But Zion is the one that puts it over the top. You never want to go too far after one game, just as everyone tried to hold off anointing Zion after his dominant preseason. But he’s making it hard to maintain perspective. Every time we’ve seen him on an NBA court, from the preseason to Wednesday night, he has been nothing short of electric. Almost revelatory. As a 19-year-old kid, you would’ve thought it impossible for Zion to live up to the extraordinary hype that surrounded him coming into this debut. Somehow, in a little over three minutes, he exceeded it.