NEW ORLEANS — The hall leading from the players’ parking lot into the Smoothie King Center is awkwardly narrow, seemingly just wide enough to fit a golf cart through.
Or, in this case, just wide enough for the Thanos-like frame of Zion Williamson.
Williamson arrived to the New Orleans Pelicans‘ arena around two hours before tipoff for his debut NBA game against the San Antonio Spurs. He shuffled through a metal detector and plodded his way down the hall to a sea of awaiting cameras, all ready to follow him for every step of the approximately 50-yard walk to the locker room.
Between the flashes and LED lights, Williamson squinted as he turned the corner to find more reporters, phones and cameras waiting. He stifled a smile, but he’s Zion Williamson — he couldn’t help but let the full ear-to-ear cheese out.
He hit a mini Eurostep to dodge a few cameras so he could do what he always does on game night: give arena employee Joanna a hug and quickly shake officer Rudy Brown’s hand.
“Oh my goodness, I’m about to be on TV now,” Joanna said with appropriate amounts of humble embarrassment and glowing pride.
And so it began for Williamson, before a 121-117 loss to San Antonio. Williamson wanted to try and make this night as normal as he could, but even he admitted the day before that he might be running on no sleep because of his excitement. It was a long, frustrating road to this moment, to walk in and be embraced by the hype he had justifiably created with one of the most electrifying college seasons ever seen.
He last put on a Pelicans game uniform more than a hundred days ago, back in the preseason when the stats didn’t count. Then he was shut down because of knee surgery. As he began his NBA career, he worked on everything he thought he knew — how to jump, how to land, how to walk.
Two hours until the stats counted. Two hours until the world finally got to see what all of this was about. — Royce Young
Zion arrives for his NBA debut
Zion Williamson arrives at the Smoothie King Center for his first NBA game.
The pregame warm-up
A few steps outside the Pelicans’ locker room, head coach Alvin Gentry shared the simple, yet sensible advice he gave Williamson pregame.
“Yeah,” he said, “I just told him to dunk on everything.”
The sound in the arena instantly changed when Williamson took the floor. Fans were scattered about in the lower bowl already, but most of the noise was coming from the hundreds of media members surrounding the court.
If you didn’t know any better, you would’ve thought it was at least the conference finals. As Williamson went through a few more handshakes and hugs and grabbed a ball to begin the routine, the lights flipped on, the microphones were hot, the cameras started rolling and the phones started Instagramming.
With earbuds tucked in snugly, Williamson kept the smiles at a minimum and locked in on getting ready. Layups, ballhandling, layups, jumpers, post-ups, layups — right hand, left hand, right hand — free throws, 3-pointers, layups. He bounced around, drawing some oohs and ahhs with his explosive first step. He focused on the mechanics. There were a few dunks, including a twirling alley-oop that was done as effortlessly as someone pushing in a chair.
He finished his routine with a series of free throws, but he hung around on the floor to watch E’Twaun Moore wrap up his workout. Moore was shooting free throws as Williamson stood to his left, saying, “I wanna see this! I gotta see this!” Moore hit his last free throw, grabbed the ball, took a dribble and elevated for an attempted windmill dunk. It clanged off the back of the iron. Williamson burst into a quick laugh, shook his head at Moore, then put his head down and sprinted off to the locker room. — Young
The locker room
For everything that was happening Wednesday night, the Pelicans did their best to treat things just like any other regular-season night.
Except it wasn’t. The 165 credentialed media members, the red T-shirts on every chair, the massive amount of fans before tipoff — that was unlike any other basketball game for this team.
So as much as Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin wanted everyone to believe that it was just another game the team needed to win, the magnitude of the night couldn’t escape him.
Inside the Pelicans’ locker room, though, the team tried to tune out the outside noise.
When the team started its pregame film session, nothing changed. Nothing extra was added. Williamson watched with a calm demeanor as he prepared for his first NBA action. He stretched. He joked around.
Even if it wasn’t a normal game outside, Williamson and the team prepared as if it was.
Inside the tunnel nearest to the Pelicans’ bench, The Swoop Troop, the team’s in-game hype squad, sang their hearts out. They blared everything from Archie Eversole’s “We Ready” to the gospel classic “Oh Happy Day.” It was a normal routine, but they were getting ready for something new.
For only the second time, Williamson was about to run out of that tunnel in a Pelicans’ jersey.
Williamson played in a scrimmage here in training camp — which more than 10,000 fans attended — and in one preseason game before his injury. With exactly 16 minutes left on the clock before tip, he took his spot at the front of the line and led his squad onto the court.
Williamson flashed his trademark smile again, walking into the cheers of an arena full of fans.
The first NBA minutes
The plan was for short bursts, and Williamson’s first NBA action was exactly that — right at four minutes.
Predictably, the Pelicans tried a scripted play to Williamson off the top, a backdoor lob the Spurs quickly sniffed out. Then, each possession had a weight to it, like a defense had just forced a three-and-out and the ball was back in Drew Brees’ hands. Every time the ball made its way to Zion, the building buzzed. Was this it? Was this about to be a moment?
But Williamson was passive. It’s possible that was by design to keep things in perspective, but the Spurs certainly had something to do with that. He posted a couple of times, immediately drawing help, and he simply kicked the ball back out. Everyone wanted him to attack, to launch, to detonate, to dunk so hard it made the net burst into flames. Williamson was sticking to the plan. Two on the ball, so pass it.
As his first four minutes were concluding, he got the ball on the right block. He read the incoming double and so did Brandon Ingram, who made a savvy cut to the middle of the key. With his back to the basket, Williamson fizzed a left-handed pass to Ingram on time, and Ingram caught it on the move and finished an easy dunk.
Zion feeds Ingram for first NBA assist
Zion Williamson dishes to Brandon Ingram for his first assist in the NBA.
It wasn’t a hammer from the peak of Mount Olympus, but it was a good play. He missed a driving layup 26 seconds later. And 23 seconds after that — to the great disappointment of many — JJ Redick was at the table waiting to check in for Williamson. The first burst was over: One turnover, one assist and one missed shot. — Young
The first basket
The second burst started at the beginning of the second quarter. After the team almost tried to force the issue in the first quarter, this time they decided to let the game come to Williamson, ultimately resulting in his first NBA points.
Searching to find the right spot on the floor, Williamson got things going by snatching the first defensive rebound of his career 64 seconds into the frame.
That didn’t work. But Williamson was there for the cleanup and the offensive rebound. He snaked his way around Trey Lyles in the middle of the lane, caught the ball and put it off the left side of the backboard for his first bucket.
Zion scores first NBA basket
Zion Williamson corrals an offensive rebound and goes right back up for the lay-in for his first career points.
The Zion show arrives
Williamson looked visibly frustrated with his performance in the first three quarters — 5 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 4 turnovers. But when his team needed a push the most, Williamson delivered.
With the Pelicans trailing 97-87, Williamson picked up assists on back-to-back plays — first with a dish to Josh Hart for a layup and then another to Moore for a pull-up just in front of the rim.
Williamson then turned into a one-man show, the type of player you expect from the No. 1 overall pick. The type of player who looks — even if for a brief moment — as if he can change the fortunes of a franchise.
He started by making a wide-open 3-pointer. He followed that up by catching a lob over LaMarcus Aldridge for a layup. Then another 3. Then a putback. Then two more 3s, the last of which gave the Pelicans a 107-106 lead, their first since the first quarter. With each shot, the fans’ cheers threatened to take the roof off the arena.
Zion sends crowd into a frenzy with 17 straight points
Zion Williamson goes off with six straight makes in just over three minutes to fire up the Smoothie King Center.
The Pelicans twice sent players to the scorer’s table to try to check in for Williamson during the run. First it was Nicolo Melli before he was called back. Then it was Derrick Favors. He too walked back to the bench without checking in. It was Williamson’s time to shine, and did he ever.
But the show had to come to a close. With 5:23 left, Williamson’s final burst of the night was over. He finished with 22 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists on 8-of-11 shooting.
‘We want Zion!’ chants break out in New Orleans
After 17 straight points in just over three minutes of action, the crowd chants for Zion Williamson to be subbed back into the game.
Would the Pelicans have won if Williamson played the final minutes? We’ll never know.
What we do know, though, is that the Zion Williamson show has arrived. And he’s going to make a lot of noise.