Zion Williamson’s NBA regular-season debut: How Pelicans are handling hype

NEW ORLEANS — As he processed Zion Williamson’s NBA regular-season debut, Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday turned his head away from the pack of cameramen in front of him. He then gazed at dozens of reporters standing along the team’s practice court.

“Just with the amount of media here, I’m pretty sure it’s going to double with the fans,” Holiday said. “Just a lot of energy and a lot of excitement and anticipation.”

Williamson will play Wednesday when the Pelicans (17-27) host the San Antonio Spurs (19-23) in a nationally televised game at Smoothie King Center after missing the first 44 games to heal a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee.

Williamson, whom the Pelicans drafted with the overall No. 1 pick, became a heavy favorite to win the league’s rookie of the year award after averaging 23.3 points on 71.4 percent shooting in four preseason games.

Because of that anticipation, the Pelicans have handed out 165 single-game credentials, including 100 for its broadcast partners and 65 for national and local media outlets. They usually have handed out 25 single-game credentials.

Zion Williamson, who spoke with the media Tuesday, will make his much hyped NBA debut against the Spurs.

Though the Pelicans expressed optimism that Williamson will remain dominant and healthy, they also wanted to temper some of that excitement so it does not mirror an out-of-control party during Mardi Gras.

“We probably need game 10 before we can really judge something,” forward Derrick Favors said. “He has to still get in shape, or NBA game shape because he hasn’t played in a while. He has to get his rhythm. He has to get accustomed to the speed and rotations.”

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Should that timeline hold up, the Pelicans may not see a fully comfortable Williamson for the next three weeks, leading into All-Star break.  

The Pelicans plan to compensate for Williamson’s anticipated rustiness with crisp ball movement and disciplined defensive rotations. Still, they have given Williamson some specific feedback, mindful that his talent and 6-foot-6, 284-pound frame can help him navigate any hiccups.

“ ’Just go out there and have fun,’ ” Favors recalled telling him. “ ‘You’re going to miss some shots. You’re going to make some mistakes. But just go out there, enjoy the process and have fun.’ ”

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