For a fleeting moment in the third quarter of Zion Williamson’s NBA debut Wednesday night, it seemed like we were going to get a dunk. The dunk. Zion cut toward the basket from the weak side of the court just as fellow rookie Jaxson Hayes drew a lone Spurs defender toward him. That left Zion’s path to the rim as open as a runway—one where he could announce his arrival with an exclamation point. Instead, he bobbled the ball before pushing it up toward the rim where it rattled in for a clumsy two points.
The play lacked much of the grace and power that Zion has exhibited in the past, and it underlined what, at that point, seemed like the takeaway from Williamson’s first NBA game: As the Pelicans and Zion himself acknowledged, there would be a learning curve for the rookie following the knee surgery that sidelined him for four months. What no one knew, though, was that the curve would last about three quarters. Or, to be more precise, about 15 minutes.
The fourth quarter began much like the first three. Zion was in the game ready to play what coach Alvin Gentry had described pregame as a “burst”—a quick interval in which Williamson could see court time but not overdo things (about five minutes per quarter). This time, he started things off by turning the ball over for the fifth time in the game. Not long after, though, the coming-out party began.
Three minutes into the quarter, Zion—who was playing as a small-ball center—caught the ball at the top of the key and drained a 3. On the next possession, he made his way toward the paint and finished a layup off an alley-oop. Then he hit another 3; in the span of a minute he had scored eight points. And he wasn’t done. Zion’s next shot attempt was a layup that got blocked, but he snatched the rebound and got the second-chance points. Based on his time limitations over the first three quarters, that seemed like the point when Zion was supposed to sub out of the game. But with the score close—104-101 in favor of the Spurs—and Zion having ignited both his team and the crowd, Gentry left him in. Zion went on to nail two more 3s for good measure (making him 4-for-4 beyond the arc on Wednesday after making just a single 3 in preseason). By the time he made his way to the free throw line after drawing a foul on the following possession, he had scored 16 straight points. He dropped in one of two at the line to bring his total to 22 points in 18 minutes, and he walked off the court to “MVP” chants.
@Zionwilliamson's (22 PTS, 4-4 3PM) 4th triple as heard around the world thread!— NBA (@NBA) January 23, 2020
The #1 overall pick scored 17 straight 4th quarter points for the @PelicansNBA in his NBA debut.
ESPN LatAm pic.twitter.com/z4IZOhlZaA
It was a movie-like ending to what had been, to that point, an underwhelming performance. Zion had played less than five minutes in each of the first three quarters and had totaled only five points. That rocky performance was a reminder that even with all the hype and anticipation, patience was in order. Zion is still a 19-year-old rookie, and though reports this week indicated that New Orleans was pulling back from trade talks in hopes of making a run at the 8-seed with the team’s current core, the expected Zion bump seemed like it would take some time to fully have its effect.
And yet, as Zion sat on the bench in the closing minutes of the fourth with his team trailing, Pelicans fans chanted for him to come back in the game. It almost felt like if Zion had remained on the court, the Pelicans could have won. Postgame, Gentry said the team’s medical staff told him to take Zion out when he did (just so we know whom to blame), and that Zion wasn’t happy about coming out.
Sure, this is all about the long game, but the seven-minute burst Zion displayed felt like a sign that the Pelicans’ hopes of sneaking into the postseason may not be so unfounded. In a flash, we went from skeptics to believers; Zion flipped the game’s energy and score in just a few minutes. He willed his team to a late lead in what was eventually a 121-117 loss and willed us all to see just what kind of impact he could have. Now, instead of holding on to the small flashes he showed in the first three quarters and waiting until he gets his rhythm fully back, we’re left with anticipation once again.
Before the season, the Pelicans went out of their way to say that Zion was not the franchise’s savior. But no one seemed to listen. Even the lead-up to this game felt exuberant in a way we haven’t seen since maybe LeBron James’s NBA debut, 17 years ago. To that end, LeBron’s greatest accomplishment is that he somehow didn’t just meet the hype that surrounded him when he was a teen; he exceeded it. And for one night, Zion somehow did, too.
So no, we didn’t get the signature Zion dunk on his debut night, but we got something a whole lot better: the most exciting seven minutes in basketball so far this season.