NEW ORLEANS — For three minutes and eight seconds, Smoothie King Center turned into Zion Williamson‘s playground. The rookie’s burst in the fourth quarter saw him give the New Orleans Pelicans‘ fans everything they wanted to see and more.
Williamson scored 17 consecutive points during a stretch that electrified the crowd and helped turn a double-digit deficit into a brief Pelicans lead before he headed to the bench for the last time with 5:23 remaining.
He started his run with a wide-open 3-pointer. Then he caught a lob over LaMarcus Aldridge for a layup. He followed that with another 3-pointer, a putback layup and two more 3-pointers, the last of which came while Aldridge was guarding him and gave the Pelicans a 107-106 lead.
When Williamson checked out at the 5:23 mark, he wasn’t happy. Neither were the fans. Minutes later, while Brandon Ingram was shooting free throws, the crowd was chanting, “We want Zion.”
But he wasn’t going to check back in. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry made it clear postgame why the decision was made to pull Williamson.
“And no, he couldn’t go back in the game, so don’t go there,” Gentry said to finish his opening statement. “Just because the medical people said that was it.”
When asked about the conversation with Williamson, Gentry added, “I don’t think anybody would be happy about it if you were playing at the level he was playing at, and then all of a sudden you had to come out of the game. I’m not the brightest coach in the world, but I wasn’t gonna take him out in those situations unless I was told to.”
Williamson finished with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting and made all four of his 3-point attempts. He added seven rebounds and three assists.
Zion Williamson reflects on his first NBA game after scoring 22 points — including 17 straight in the fourth quarter — in the Pelicans’ loss to the Spurs.
Like many in the crowd, he wasn’t thinking about medical restrictions when it was time for him to come out of the game.
“It’s very hard,” Williamson said. “I’m 19. Honestly, in that moment, I’m not thinking about longevity. I’m thinking about winning the game. So it was very tough.”
The rally was something Pelicans fans had been waiting to see from the No. 1 overall pick. Williamson’s run began at the 8:52 mark of the fourth quarter with a 27-foot 3-pointer that closed San Antonio’s lead to 99-94. Over the following 3:08 stretch, Williamson had 17 points.
“I think what you saw there was a taste of what, once we really get settled, he gets settled in, there is a lot of things we can do with him,” Gentry said. “There’s a lot of potential there. It was good to see him do that. I just think there’s a really, really high ceiling that he can reach, you know. He can reach it.”
Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday, who finished with 12 points and shared a podium with Williamson after the game, said he was “hyped” watching Williamson drain 3-pointer after 3-pointer.
“After the first one, I was like, ‘All right, cool.’ Then the second one came, and I was like, ‘All right, boy, you been practicing!’ And then the third one, from that point on, the energy was crazy,” Holiday said. “We’ve seen him do this since high school. This is what he does. As exciting as it was, is it really that much of a surprise?”
Williamson posted his first NBA field goal, a 1-foot shot, at the 10:35 mark of the second quarter, followed with an offensive charge for a turnover exactly one minute later. Derrick Favors replaced him for the Pelicans with 7:40 left in the first half.
Turnovers were an issue for Williamson. He finished with five, including two in the first half and two in the third quarter. Part of that was because Williamson was pressing and deferring too much in his NBA debut, something to be expected from a rookie. Gentry said he talked to Williamson at halftime to try to settle him down.
“I told him I wanted him to be more aggressive and wanted him to enjoy the moment,” Gentry said. “Don’t take this lightly. It’s a great moment for you. It’s what you’ve worked for your whole life is to be able to walk out and play in an NBA game. So enjoy that moment and not to worry about it, and we’re gonna be fine as a team, and you’re gonna be fine as a player.”
The Pelicans have said time and again that Williamson isn’t coming to save the franchise. They continued that approach by introducing Williamson second in the starting lineup, behind Ingram. Holiday was last. That said, the team, the franchise and the city all understand what type of player has joined the starting five.
“I think if you are adding a great player in there, he will find a way to adjust, and we will find a way to make it adjust,” Gentry said pregame. “But obviously, it’s the first game that he’s playing in the NBA, so we will just see how it goes. But everyone else still? You play the way you played with the consistency that we played over the last two or three weeks and with the energy that we played with. So integrating him into what we are doing is not going to be that difficult.”
The buzz was palpable throughout the night, but it went to another level in the fourth quarter, when Williamson began to show some of the skill set befit of his billing. Even Spurs coach Gregg Popovich appreciated the moment overall — and that was before Williamson went on his fourth-quarter run.
“I’m glad he’s back,” Popovich said pregame. “You know it’s — a talent like that — you know he’s a great guy on top of it all. The whole world needs to see him. So I mean, obviously, it’s good for the Pelicans, but it’s good for basketball. He’s quite a package, both as a player and as a person.”
Aldridge had 32 points, 14 rebounds and 2 blocks to pace the Spurs, seemingly an afterthought on Williamson’s night. DeMar DeRozan added 20 points and five rebounds, and the Spurs finished with five players in double figures.
Even in the opposing locker room, the conversation eventually shifted to Williamson’s big outing.
“He’s special, you know?” DeRozan said. “Anybody who’s been following basketball the past few years seen the talent that he has, you know? Hope he be able to stay healthy and be able to put it together. The sky’s the limit for him.”
Williamson said his NBA debut was everything he dreamed of, except for the loss. That part, he hopes, will change his next time out.
“Just the energy the crowd brought, the energy the city brought, it was electric, and I’m just grateful that they did that,” Williamson said. “It was a dream come true to finally get out there; but at the end of the day, I did want to win, so just got to look to next game.”