When Zion Williamson said “Let’s Dance” to New Orleans at last year’s NBA draft, we had no idea fans would literally be dancing in their seat for his heavily anticipated debut in January.
Last Wednesday, Williamson got the full LeBron James’ debut treatment. From a countdown clock to incredible features of New Orleans athletes welcoming him to the city, Williamson’s debut for the New Orleans Pelicans on ESPN felt like a major sporting event.
As a guy who follows the NBA and is somewhat limited in talking about it in this market, I have to admit it was cool being at church on Wednesday and hearing several people alongside me talking about Williamson’s debut.
“I got the DVR ready,” someone said.
And though there was a minute restriction — Williamson exited the game for good with 5:23 remaining after rallying his team from 10 points down — Williamson’s debut delivered a moment we’ll remember for years to come. Like LeBron’s debut against the Sacramento Kings, I felt like I had watched something I would reference years later. Somehow the moment actually met the otherworldly hype.
And to be honest, it didn’t feel that way from the jump. Entering the fourth quarter, Williamson was still trying to find his way. He had just five points, four rebounds, one assist and four turnovers.
And even that doesn’t tell the full story. As he would, at times, wobble down the court with his 286-pound frame, doubt crept in the back of my mind about whether or not the Pelicans made the correct investment. And it’s hard not to have those thoughts with reports surfacing approximately a month ago about the Pelicans changed the way Williamson walked and ran. Not exactly what you want to hear when 95 percent of what you do as a basketball player is run.
So when ESPN analysts (and former coaches) Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy were making the obvious comparison to the No. 2 pick and shoo-in for NBA Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant, it’s hard not to second guess that decision with such a rough start.
Those thoughts evaporated in the fourth quarter. It was like Williamson was a late arrival for his own coronation. He drained four consecutive 3-pointers to ultimately give the Pelicans a 107-106 lead, and on top of that, every time he touched the ball, it felt like a highlight. Heck, he makes you want to elbow your buddy at times and say, “Did you see that rebound?” We’re talking about a generational talent here.
But much to the chagrin of everyone in attendance, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry pulled the plug on Williamson’s debut midway into the fourth quarter. And New Orleans struggled down the stretch to ultimately lose 121-117 to the San Antonio Spurs.
During those final few minutes, the crowd chanted, “We want Zion” in unison.
The moment not only reminded me of James’ debut, but it also prompted me to think of Stephen Strasburg. Like the Washington Nationals designed a plan to limit Strasburg’s pitches early into his career, the Pelicans designated a three- to six-minute limitation for Williamson by the quarter.
And while that certainly isn’t popular, especially after a hard-fought loss, the reasoning behind it makes sense when you recognize Williamson isn’t suited to give you 30 minutes or more in an NBA game at this point. And why run that machine into the ground when he’s only 19 years old?
The Pelicans played the long game in Williamson’s debut, and if he can become the dominant force we saw in the fourth quarter, it’s a game worth playing. You can only hope it’s as successful as Washington’s with the Nationals celebrating their first World Series last year.
It’s up to the front office and the young Williamson to stick to that plan, though. The Pelicans have a good enough roster to win now, but executive vice president David Griffin has put together a team that’s built to last for several more years.
No reason to rush the pace. Let’s start with a slow dance that hopefully leads to a championship celebration deep into the night.