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The Pelicans Are Thrilled to Have Zion Williamson Back

Zion Williamson made his return to the Pelicans practice for the first time in nearly two weeks, but his availability for New Orleans’s opener on Thursday is up in the air.

Every weekday, SI’s Chris Mannix will check-in with his Bubble Bits, a quick hit on something notable from inside the NBA’s campus

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The bus pulled up to the entrance of the Coronado Springs hotel a little after 6 p.m. on Tuesday, and off stepped a familiar face: Zion Williamson, New Orleans’s star forward, who made his return to Pelicans practice for the first time in nearly two weeks. Williamson, who left the team to tend to what was called an “urgent family medical matter” on July 13, cleared the NBA’s quarantine protocols early Tuesday and was restored to active status.

Williamson wasn’t a full participant in Pelicans practice—“light stuff,” said coach Alvin Gentry—and his availability for New Orleans’s opener on Thursday is up in the air. Gentry said the training staff will monitor Williamson through the Pelicans practice on Wednesday, and the team will make a decision on his status after that.

“If he's ready to play, he'll play, and if he's not, we won't play him,” Gentry said. “You're not going to risk anything long term for something very, very short term. We'll see and evaluate tomorrow where he is. The medical people will [evaluate him], and so will Zion. Zion will tell us how he feels, and then from there, we'll go and see and make decisions based on what is best for him and what is best for our team.”

Still: Zion’s mere presence gives the Pelicans a jolt. Williamson didn’t do much in the 15-minute window the media was allowed to watch practice. He did shooting drills with an assistant coach on one end of the floor, firing up three’s from different spots on the floor. He looked a little heavy; while Williamson was regularly tested for COVID-19 during his absence, he wasn’t doing intense workouts, and there’s only so much you can do during the NBA mandated four-day quarantine in a hotel room.

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Zion’s teammates, however, were thrilled to have him back.

“When someone is away, when they come back, it’s always refreshing to see their face, to get energy from them,” said Josh Hart. “We’re looking forward to him getting out there tomorrow or Thursday or [whenever] it is. But it’s always good to see someone, knowing that they battled with some off the court stuff, to see them coming back, smiling and being professional.”

Added Lonzo Ball, “We’re happy to have him back. Obviously, he puts our team at full strength. We’re a lot better with him than we are without him, we know that, so having him back to start the games back up is great for us.”

But will he be back? The Pelicans certainly need Zion. They begin the resumed scheduled 3 ½ games behind Memphis for the final playoff spot. With Zion, New Orleans—10-9 with Williamson in the lineup this season—has a shot at staying close enough to get into a play-in situation. Without him, they likely don’t. Still, Pelicans officials insist they will play the long game with the 20-year old Williamson, even if it costs them a shot at the playoffs this season.

"Obviously, guys, we would love to have Zion [back and ready to play Thursday],” Gentry said. “Let's be honest, he's one of those generational players that can do a lot of things, and we would like to have him, but if he's not there, we did play 44 games without him and had some success. We had a stretch in there where we were 12-4, so you’ve just got to look at it that way.”

“He's well-liked by his teammates, and obviously he likes being around his teammates. Just to have him back in the gym, I think, is a real positive. It's a lift in energy anyway when he's in the building. It's just a matter of us figuring out where he is from a basketball standpoint. It's been a little while since he's done things on the court, but he was able to do some five-on-zero things today. We'll just have to see where that leads too.”