What We Learned From Zion Williamson’s NBA Debut
The New Orleans Pelicans have been on National TV a bunch this season, much more than expected for a team that is 17-28 and sits in 12th place in the Western Conference. But that schedule was made up prior to when 2019 first overall pick Zion Williamson was sidelined and had his rookie debut put on hold as he had knee surgery that put him on the shelf for four months.
For parts of last night’s debut, and really through three quarters, the National TV billing also seemed to be too much as the ESPN broadcast crew tried to hype up every pass or layup, or basically any time he touched the ball, considering he didn’t complete a single dunk in the game. But Zion’s fourth-quarter spark showed exactly how special he could be. Here are a few takeaways from his rookie debut in a 121-117 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
Zion is a player with a very particular set of skills
Much like Bryan Mills in Taken, Zion Williamson has some very unique talents. He’s not just an athletic power forward that can complete highlight-reel dunks, although he’s capable of doing that as well. Williamson is a very good ball-handler, that can make decisions quickly and complete sharp passes to teammates in scoring situations.
I can see the ball going into him on the inside or him even getting it early in the halfcourt prior to approaching the three-point line. He had three assists in just 18 minutes last night, mostly to slashing scorers. Getting him integrated into the offense won’t be a lengthy process, and with his ability to pass, slash and shoot, he could cause some matchup nightmares at his position, but more on that later.
Playing him in bursts is the right move for now
It may be frustrating to Pelicans fans who would just love to see the young fella unleashed, but playing Williamson in short bursts as Alvin Gentry referred to is the smart play. He’s a player that is expected to be a franchise cornerstone, likely along with Brandon Ingram, and rushing him back doesn’t make sense.
While Mark Jackson was a bit critical when talking about Williamson’s condition, it doesn’t really seem like a weight thing. Zion is solid, but of course he’s not going to be in the best shape following rehab from knee surgery. I’ve seen players around the league that don’t seem to have an ounce of body fat look slow after being off the court for an extended time and returning from major surgery. Some players have even been sent to the G League for rehab stints just so they can work their way back into playing shape. He’s going to need time to get back into playing shape, but that seems like just a natural thing.
Once he does that and feels comfortable playing more minutes, you’ll start to see what he is really capable of, although last night was a nice preview. Gentry and the Pelicans medical staff are making the best decisions with the player’s best interests in mind.
He can put up points in a hurry
Williamson put up five points in a ho-hum three quarters, but then he went off on a three-minute spark, scoring 17 points. 12 of those came from the three-point line. He was four-of-four from beyond the arch as the Spurs kept their bigs in the paint to try to dissuade him from penetrating, so Patty Mills on many occasions was left running at Williamson with a hand up. The result every time was a shot going through the net and the crowd at the Smoothie King Center erupting.
Even the ESPN play-by-play was getting into the Zion three-point shooting as the broadcasters went crazy for the made threes and were seemingly lulled to sleep when a Spur would go on to counter with their own three on the other end to a monotone play call several decibels lower, but Zion kept providing the exclamation points until the medical staff apparently asked Gentry to take him out of the game as the Pelicans crowd chanted MVP.
If Zion can be a consistent shooter from outside, he’s going to provide a new wrinkle to the Pelicans offense as he will be a threat to knock down jumpers on the outside or slash to the basket.
Defending him by committee might be the best option for now
Aside from the fourth quarter burst, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs defended Williamson well. Instead of playing him straight up, they doubled him when he got deep into the paint. He may have burned them when Jakob Poeltl decided to sag off him when he squared up from the perimeter, but he’ll have to prove he can be consistent with that shot before teams try to defend him closer on the perimeter.
Defensively, Williamson has the potential to be a top defender, but he still has some work to do there, and that’ll just take time and being out on the floor with his teammates knowing where to be and when not to help.