In the end, Zion Williamson was the payoff, and that’s the only thing anyone will remember about Wednesday night’s game, which was, for the record, a 121–117 Spurs win in New Orleans and a playoff-relevant result. The Pelicans unearthed the No. 1 pick for what could have been the most anticipated rookie debut ever (thanks, modern news cycle), and after three quarters of tentative play in a game that had dragged, Williamson ripped off 17 straight points, bringing his team within one point of a game they’d trailed since the first quarter. The Spurs dared him to shoot his jumper; he made all four of his very, very open three-point attempts. He did not dunk an alley-oop from Lonzo Ball, but he did lay it in. He may have become the first player ever to draw MVP chants in his first NBA game.
And then, after all that, Williamson came out of the game. There is, after all, protocol when it comes to managing the nuclear football. So he was deployed once per quarter, for three-to-five minutes each time, irrespective of situation, long-term health in mind. To label this a fairy-tale debut would be misguided not only because the Pelicans lost the game, but also because he just missed half the season rehabbing a meniscus injury, which by definition is a non-storybook way to start your career. Williamson is the rare sort of athlete who can best be described as breathtaking, not only in the slo-mo sense, but because his every stride, leap and landing makes you hold your breath in a fearfully protective kind of way.
Still just 19 years old, Williamson finished with 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists and five turnovers in his 18 minutes, gradually working out the kinks and ending the night looking like the player we’ve come to know. New Orleans is still figuring out the best way to space the floor with him on the court, an equation that will continue to shift as opponents inevitably try to stop him creatively. But the nice thing about Williamson is how much he can impact a game without dominating possessions. A keen, experienced Zion-watcher might note the several impressive passes he threw, an explosive blow-by on LaMarcus Aldridge, and his ability to win rebounds and get into transition. If you thought Williamson would be able to do many of the things he did so well at Duke right away in the NBA, you weren’t wrong. If you thought he’d be great immediately because of his dominant preseason, you’re probably lying, because nobody watches the preseason. (New Orleans was undefeated, but no, it didn’t count.)
The good news here is that Williamson, even in what appears to be a controlled workload situation for the time being, will continue to be a must-watch player, which will make the Pelicans one of the more intriguing teams to follow over the next two months as he figures things out. If you haven’t bothered to keep tabs on New Orleans in his absence, here’s what you missed: In the half-season that elapsed without Williamson, the Pelicans ambled on what may prove to be a formative identity quest. Brandon Ingram blossomed into one of the NBA’s most dangerous scorers. Lonzo Ball altered his shot mechanics and rediscovered his confidence. Derrick Favors, their defensive lynchpin, missed time with injury, and 19-year-old center Jaxson Hayes showed promising flashes in his absence.
In the midst of a frustrating run of injuries, New Orleans endured a bizarre 13-game losing streak. They were on the precipice of falling out of the race entirely, and creating a difficult situation to chart, with Jrue Holiday’s name being thrown into trade hypotheticals across the internet and some calling for a full rebuild. That was premature. A win in Minnesota on Dec. 18 spurred a run of 10 wins in 15 games—from 7-22 to 17-27, firmly in the mix for the eighth seed in the West going into Wednesday night’s game. They have one of the NBA’s easiest schedules down the back stretch, and at the moment, one of the league’s hotter teams.
It won’t be easy to make the playoffs, but considering the way they’ve played for the last six weeks, the Pelicans are capable. They’re in no hurry to cut corners, but have placed organizational emphasis on developing their young talent in a competitive environment. It’s why New Orleans brought in Derrick Favors and J.J. Redick. The cultivation of winning habits is a prerogative. So, dropping Williamson into a playoff race, rejoining a team that seems to already have hit its stride, thus seems pretty optimal, given the circumstances. All that’s left is to take the training wheels off. And the fact it’s already this much fun can’t be a bad thing. Watching Williamson feels good. Imagine what it’ll be like when he feels good, too.