- 2019 No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson made his NBA regular-season debut Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs.
- He scored 17 straight points in the fourth quarter, briefly staking the Pelicans to their first lead since the opening minutes, but he was pulled with 5:23 remaining.
- While the Pelicans lost to a Spurs team that’s also vying for the No. 8 seed in the West, they’re wise to prioritize Williamson’s long-term health above all else.
New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, made his long-awaited regular-season debut Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs.
A brief, explosive salvo in the fourth quarter proved the wait was worthwhile.
Williamson reeled off 17 straight points, including four three-pointers, over a three-minute span, giving the Pelicans their first lead since midway through the first quarter. Head coach Alvin Gentry pulled him for the night with 5:23 remaining, and the Spurs went on to win 121-117.
Ryan Russillo of The Ringer blasted the Pelicans for removing Williamson in the midst of his heater:
While Russillo’s frustration is understandable—who wouldn’t want to see whether the rookie could guide the Pelicans to a critical win?—the team would be wise to ignore such chatter for the time being.
Trust the (Medical) Process
After the game, Gentry preemptively addressed why he removed Williamson from the game at such a critical juncture.
“And no, he couldn’t go back in the game, so don’t go there,” he said during the opening statement of his postgame press conference, per ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. “Just because the medical people said that was it.”
He added that Williamson “wasn’t happy” that he had to come out:
“It’s very hard,” Williamson said in his postgame press conference, per Lopez. He went on:
I’m 19. Honestly, in that moment, I’m not thinking about longevity. I’m thinking about winning that game. So it was very tough.
Williamson underwent surgery on Oct. 21 to address a torn meniscus in his right knee. In the weeks leading up to the star rookie’s regular-season debut, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin made it clear that he would be eased back into action.
He very likely will not be asked to take the pounding of back-to-backs initially. There will be a sort of ramp-up for him to getting back to where you would call him full strength, but he’s certainly going to be playing, and we’re trying to win basketball games.
That messaging shifted last week, which may have led to some of the confusion about Williamson’s limited minutes Wednesday.
The Pelicans’ Messaging
As Mason Ginbserg of Bourbon Street Shots noted, that conflicting messaging is the one legitimate gripe about how the Pelicans handled Williamson in his debut.
However, it’s foolish to bash the Pelicans for prioritizing the long-term health of their newest franchise player.
While the 17-28 Pelicans are (somehow) still in the playoff race out West—they’re only four games behind the eighth-seeded Spurs despite Wednesday’s loss—they’re also in unprecedented territory with the 6’6″, 285-pound Williamson. Ignoring their medical staff’s advice and overtaxing him to win one regular-season game would be shortsighted.
The Pelicans are only halfway through the first year of their post-Anthony Davis era. They’ll have Williamson under team control for the next eight-and-a-half seasons. If all goes as they hope, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to shine in the months and years to come—and in far bigger moments than a nationally televised regular-season game in mid-January.
Williamson entered the NBA as the most-hyped prospect since Davis, and the lengthy injury layoff only increased the anticipation for his debut. But the Pelicans are wisely keeping the bigger picture in mind with their star rookie, even if it costs them a few wins—or even a playoff berth—this season.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of CCN.com.