NBA New Orleans Pelicans San Antonio Spurs Basketball New Orleans Pelicans v San Antonio Spurs
Through three quarters of his NBA debut, Zion Williamson was largely invisible, a challenge for someone who stands at 6-6 and 284 pounds. But much like a tourist visiting Bourbon Street, the Pelicans rookie refused to end his night quietly. Williamson erupted for 17 consecutive points over a three-minute stretch in the final frame of Wednesday's game against the Spurs, lighting a fire under the crowd at the Smoothie King Center. That burst alone was enough to validate the hype surrounding the No. 1 pick, who was inserted into the starting five after missing the first 44 games of his rookie season with a knee injury. San Antonio ultimately defeated New Orleans with Williamson finishing the fourth quarter on the bench (more on that later), but his performance brings a few questions about his future to the forefront. Let's
Through three quarters of his NBA debut, Zion Williamson was largely invisible, a challenge for someone who stands at 6-6 and 284 pounds.
But much like a tourist visiting Bourbon Street, the Pelicans rookie refused to end his night quietly.
Williamson erupted for 17 consecutive points over a three-minute stretch in the final frame of Wednesday's game against the Spurs, lighting a fire under the crowd at the Smoothie King Center. That burst alone was enough to validate the hype surrounding the No. 1 pick, who was inserted into the starting five after missing the first 44 games of his rookie season with a knee injury.
San Antonio ultimately defeated New Orleans with Williamson finishing the fourth quarter on the bench (more on that later), but his performance brings a few questions about his future to the forefront. Let's
MORE: Check out the best highlights from Zion's debut
So, Zion is going to be really fun, right?
Oh, hell yes.
Sit back and enjoy these highlights. The tension as the ball hangs in the air followed by the release as it hits the bottom of the net — just delightful.
Zion's 4th Quarter Explosion 🔥🔥🔥🔥, Full play video of him will drop as soon as game ends pic.twitter.com/KK8amCod7v
— Dawkins (@DawkinsMTA) January 23, 2020
The 19-year-old made some history with his stat line: 22 points (8-of-11 from the field, 4-of-4 from 3-point range), seven rebounds, three assists and five turnovers in 18 minutes. He is the only player to ever take four 3-pointers and drain all of them in a debut game, per Elias Sports. He is also the first player in league history to score at least 22 points while playing less than 20 minutes in a debut game, and he set a new franchise record for points in a debut, narrowly beating another former No. 1 pick in Anthony Davis (21 points vs. the Spurs in 2012).
Almost all of his production came during that fourth-quarter explosion when Williamson tried to burn the building down.
Zion Williamson debutFirst three quartersFourth quarterPoints517Field goals2-36-83-point field goals0-04-4Rebounds43Assists12Minutes played11:416:37
"There's a lot of potential there," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. "It was good to see him do that. I just think there's a really, really high ceiling that he can reach. He can reach it."
It's unreasonable to expect this kind of showing every single night, but Williamson will quickly make the Pelicans shoot up the League Pass rankings. He is a special talent, one capable of forcing you to stop what you're doing and allow his energy to jump off the screen and consume you.
Please, basketball gods, keep this guy healthy.
MORE: How Zion Williamson's debut compares to LeBron, MJ, other NBA greats
What challenges will Zion face the rest of the season?
Williamson's late surge did obscure his early struggles. His handle was a little loose and the game moved a little fast for him, resulting in five turnovers.
On his first turnover, for example, he floated to the middle of the floor after Lonzo Ball rejected a screen, then missed a cutting Derrick Favors. Williamson is an underrated passer, so with more games under his belt, he should have a better feel for offensive spacing and timing.
Zion Williamson first career turnover pic.twitter.com/FOnuW8Pz9l
— The Render (@TheRenderNBA2) January 23, 2020
Speaking of space, Williamson should have plenty of it along the perimeter if the Spurs' defense is any indication of what he will encounter over the next few months. Even on Williamson's third 3-pointer, Spurs center Jakob Poeltl was hanging out at the elbow, daring Williamson to hit another outside shot.
It would be great for the Pelicans if Williamson never misses a 3-pointer for the rest of his career, but they can't expect this level of shooting consistently. He never made more than three shots from beyond the arc during any of his games at Duke, so this is new territory. He doesn't need to be Stephen Curry — he just needs to make defenders respect him.
On the other side of the ball, Williamson did get lost on some possessions. He must be more locked in defensively, or smart opponents will take advantage. Watch as Trey Lyles goes backdoor after Williamson loses sight of him.
NBA defense is hard. Zion will have to be more locked in than he was in school. LMA post. Pels go to double. Zion does OK job zoning up weakside. On kickout tho Lonzo is pretty clearly there for Forbes - Zion bouncing around out there lets his man Lyles backcut for a dunk. pic.twitter.com/2ZR5Hgagt7
— SCOUTWITHBRYAN (@ScoutWithBryan) January 23, 2020
Obvious caveat: Zion's season started at Game 45. In the words of Aaron Rodgers, "Five letters here ... R-E-L-A-X." There will be spectacular highlights, but there will be rough moments, too.
How long will the Pelicans keep Zion on this minutes plan?
With 5:23 remaining in regulation and the Pelicans down by three, Williamson was subbed out and never re-entered the game. The decision to sit Williamson was taken out of Gentry's hands, as the medical staff actually pushed Gentry to pull him earlier in the quarter, according to ESPN's Marc Spears.
“Coach, I can win the game for this team. Leave me in."
—Alvin Gentry on what Zion said before he was subbed out (via @MarcJSpearsESPN) pic.twitter.com/DyQ2WvUGU4
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 23, 2020
The Pelicans' medical team knows Zion's body better than anyone. It's easy to understand the thought process. He's the future of the franchise, so why risk his health in his debut? Follow the script.
Still, the Pelicans will have to allow Williamson to spread his wings at some point. He will never be able to find a groove if he is always worrying about heading back to the bench three or four minutes into a quarter.
"Honestly, in that moment, I'm not thinking about longevity," Williamson said. "I'm thinking about winning the game. So it was very tough."
If New Orleans wants to reach the playoffs — and a recent report from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski indicates that is the case — Williamson can't be restricted forever. It's only a matter of time before his conditioning picks up and the Pelicans fully unleash him.