NEW ORLEANS — For almost 3½ quarters, the prized prospect lacked any highlight reels. For half a quarter, Zion Williamson almost did everything.
After initially laboring with his rust, conditioning and ball handling, Zion Williamson dominated with surprisingly stellar outside shooting, playmaking and hustle.
The Pelicans still lost, 121-117, to the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday at Smoothie King Center. But Williamson showed remarkable progress with his development in his regular-season debut after missing the first 44 games while rehabbing his right knee. He posted 17 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter and made all four 3-point attempts after appearing sloppy with his conditioning and four turnovers in 18 minutes.
“If he plays absolutely great, I’m not going to be overly excited about it,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said beforehand. “If he doesn’t play good at all, I’m not going to be overly excited about it. It will be an adjustment period with the speed of the game and everything.”
Because of that adjustment period, Williamson did not initially look like the player that averaged 23.3 points on 71.4% shooting in four preseason games. But as Gentry noted, “I don’t count the preseason.”
Williamson initially looked less like a No. 1 prospect and more like an unproven rookie. He did not score until the second quarter, while the Pelicans used him more as a decoy out of double teams. With Williamson wearing a sleeve around his right knee, he looked noticeably winded even after playing in only four-minute bursts. Gentry joked beforehand that he “just told him to try to dunk on everybody.” But for a while, Williamson dunked on nobody.
That prompted Gentry and some of his teammates to tell Williamson to stop deferring. He eventually listened. In one sequence, Williamson made a 3-pointer from the top of the key, converted on a lob and then sank another 3 from the top of the key. He ended making all four of his attempts from outside.
“I was hyped,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said. “After the first one, I was like, ‘Cool.’ After the second 3, I was like, ‘Alright boy, you’re practicing.’ From the third one and that point on, the energy was crazy. But we’ve seen him do this since high school. This is what he does. So as exciting as it was, it wasn’t that much of a surprise.”
It was a surprise to Williamson, though.
“When you’re not able to move around, the only thing you can do is shoot spot-up jumpers,” Williamson said. “I guess that was the result of that.”
That was also a result of Williamson being what Gentry described as a “really bright basketball player.” Williamson initially met Spurs double teams. So, he operated more as a decoy than a scorer. He threw a lob to Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram in the first quarter. His fourth-quarter outburst began with dishing off two other assists. And then his scoring touch happened after receiving open looks.
“He wasn’t going 100 miles an hour trying to get that first bucket and get that monkey off his back,” Pelicans guard Josh Hart said. “He made the right plays. That’s the biggest thing, especially for someone your age where you have so much eyes on you and so much pressure on you.”
That pressure did not seem to phase Williamson, though.
Said Williamson: “It’s everything I dreamed of, except for the losing.”
Follow Mark Medina on Twitter @MarkG_Medina.