NEW ORLEANS — It took only 3 ½ quarters for Pelicans rookie forward Zion Williamson to shed his rust and post endless highlight reels. It might take much longer, though, before Williamson can play without a minutes restriction.
That left the Pelicans’ 19-year-old with conflicted emotions surrounding his NBA regular-season debut after missing the first 44 games to rehab his injured right knee.
He expressed frustration over the Pelicans’ 121-117 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, but he sounded encouraged with scoring 17 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, while making all four 3-point attempts. He reported feeling fine physically, but admitted he did not feel well mentally with logging only 18 minutes.
“It’s very hard,” Williamson said. “In that moment, I’m not thinking about longevity. I’m thinking about winning that game. It was very tough.”
Pelicans fans felt the same way. Within just over a three-minute span, Williamson drilled four 3-pointers, converted on an alley-oop and putback and then split a pair of foul shots. But even with New Orleans trailing 111-108 with 5:23 remaining, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry ignored the fans’ pleads of “We want Zion!”
“He wasn’t happy about it,” Gentry said. “I don’t think anybody would be happy about it if he were playing at the level he was playing at and all of a sudden you have to come out of the game. I ain’t the brightest coach in the world. But I wasn’t going to take him out of those situations unless I was told to.”
Gentry was told by the Pelicans’ medical staff that Williamson had to sit. Williamson has had multiple knee injuries — three separate ones during his freshman season at Duke, during summer-league play and in the preseason. The Pelicans plan to handle him with care.
“We have to be smart about it,” Gentry said. “We understand that we have to look long term and not look one game short term and put him out there and play him extended minutes.”
When will Williamson play extended minutes? Gentry said the Pelicans will handle that question on “a game-by-game basis.” They also will evaluate how Williamson’s body responds the day after the game. Otherwise, the Pelicans lack clarity on a definitive timetable, leaving the patient with questions as well.
“Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that,” Williamson said. “Me, personally, I didn’t want any restrictions. But I’m not a doctor or trainer. I just got to listen to them.”
Williamson showed he can still make a heck of an impact on limited minutes. He became the first player in NBA history to score at least 22 points while playing fewer than 20 minutes in their debut game.
Not bad for someone who had not played in nearly three months. Not bad for someone who often looked fatigued and did not play more than four-minute bursts. Not bad for someone who often played sloppy and committed five turnovers.
As Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said, “For him to go out there and do that his first game is pretty elite.”
“I felt fine,” Williamson said. “Throughout that long rehab process, they prepared my body to go out there and be ready for that.”
The Pelicans have helped Williamson improve his range of motion so that he has more flexibility with moving his hips and feet. The process has not ended, though. They remain mindful that Williamson still needs time to improve his conditioning and allow his body to recover from an increased workload. So when the fans began chanting for Williamson to return, the Pelicans simply covered their ears.
“I understand where the fans are coming from. But we’re also looking long term,” Holiday said. “Do I want him to run on the court and check in to the scorer’s table? Yeah. But we got 35-plus games left. That’s really what’s important.”