The long wait is almost over. After months of cautious progress reports and camera phone warmup videos, the Pelicans announced on Wednesday that rookie Zion Williamson is slated to make his NBA debut against San Antonio on Jan. 22. We’ll have waited 44 games for Williamson’s debut when he presumably checks into his first professional contest. As we saw in Summer League, every move will be dissected, every dunk played on a loop. But what can we really expect in the first weeks of Zion’s NBA career? Viewers should proceed with caution.
Alvin Gentry and the Pelicans have taken a bubble-wrap approach to their prized rookie this season, and rightfully so. Drafting Williamson isn’t just the Pelicans’ opportunity to build around a (potentially) generational talent. It’s their second chance this decade. New Orleans has received a new lease on life after the Anthony Davis saga, reborn thanks to some magical ping-pong balls. The franchise could have been mired in irrelevance without its fortunate lottery luck. There’s no sense being risky with a second chance.
Williamson is all but certain to see a significant minutes restriction in New Orleans this season, and the prospect of playing in back-to-backs is certainly a dicey one. The Duke product is likely to log minutes in short bursts at first, building up his stamina both before and after the All-Star Break. Williamson should be in better shape than he was in Summer League, though he’ll still likely be a step behind his competition in that regard. Nearing regular rotation minutes is a goal more likely for March than the early part of February.
So how can Williamson be deployed when he is in the game? Gentry has a few appealing options. Unlike Anthony Davis when he arrived in New Orleans, Williamson joins a roster largely engineered to play to his strengths. The Pelicans play with the NBA’s No. 6 fastest pace, sporting a young, athletic core. Expect New Orleans to unleash Williamson on the fast break, both as a finisher and as a lead ballhandler.
The Williamson-Lonzo Ball duo is especially intriguing. Both players’ questionable jumpers originally gives pause to the pairing–though Ball is up to 35.5% from three this season–yet simple shooting figures obscure the duo’s potential impact. Not only are Williamson and Ball dynamic athletes above the rim, they both play a mental step ahead of defenses. Both can be impact players without excessive usage, preferring to generate easy shots for teammates (or, in this case, one another). The first Ball-Williamson alley-oop will set Twitter ablaze. It will become commonplace soon enough.
Ball projects to be a seamless fit alongside Williamson, but what about the rest of New Orleans’s young core? Brandon Ingram provided the greatest question mark on that front entering the season. The former No. 2 pick is uniquely skilled and incredibly long, though he began 2019-20 as largely a one-man band. He hunted isolation possessions at nearly every opportunity, often playing outside the flow of Los Angeles’s offense last season. Ingram’s talent is easily evident, but his willingness to play on an island was concerning. Stealing possessions from Williamson did not seem to be a viable path moving forward.
Ingram has become a different player in his fourth season. His assist rate is up to 20.5% compared with 12.9% last year, and the tape backs up the statistical bump. Ingram snakes through pick-and-rolls with an eye on the corners. He’s used rookie Jaxson Hayes as a meaningful lob threat, and J.J. Reddick is still receiving his healthy diet of triples. Not only can Ingram and Williamson coexist given Ingram’s growth, the duo can thrive.
We’ve called for caution regarding Williamson’s debut, a fair decision given his minutes restriction and likely conditioning adjustment. But limited playing time doesn’t mean Williamson has to be ineffective. He averaged 23.3 points per game in four preseason contests, dunking his way to 71.4% shooting. It’s hard to imaging Gentry and Co. trotting Williamson onto the floor without full explosiveness in his knee. Williamson will make an immediate impact if healthy, conditioning be damned. He’s too athletic not to give New Orleans at least a minor boost.
The Pelicans enter Thursday night No. 14 in the Western Conference at 15–26. The playoffs are nearly out of reach, and the West should remain highly competitive after the trade deadline. A difficult road awaits. But progress remains paramount as New Orleans closes 2019-20. This isn’t a roster prepared to tank–it’s one armed with quality NBA assets. The future of the franchise is ready to roll. It’s time to show growth toward a potential playoff run in 2020-21.