NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

Pelicans' Zion Williamson looks every bit the superstar in NBA debut

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

We waited, and then we waited some more. In one of the most highly-anticipated regular-season game in years, Zion Williamson made his debut for the New Orleans Pelicans against the San Antonio Spurs three months after undergoing surgery to address a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. Though he played for the first three quarters, we didn’t see Zion be Zion until the fourth quarter.

And boy, was it worth the wait. Williamson went nuclear in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 straight points in the final frame on 6-of-8 shooting, including 4-for-4 from 3. He became the first player in NBA history to make more than three 3-pointers without a miss in his NBA debut, per Basketball Reference. It was the most thrilling three-minute stretch of basketball all season and I’m sure there were plenty of well-rested people waking up with regret this morning.

For the game, the 19-year-old finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists in just 18 minutes. This, after coming off a monstrous preseason in which he averaged 23.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game on 75.5 percent shooting on 2s and 25 percent shooting on 3s.

On its own, this was everything the Pelicans and the NBA could have asked for in a debut. The slow build made the fourth quarter that much more enjoyable to witness. But in the bigger picture, there’s a lot to unpack after Wednesday’s explosion.

Here are three takeaways on my mind as I watched Zion’s debut.

 

Upgraded Blake Griffin is Zion’s real comp

Williamson’s other-worldly combination of skill, strength and springs has generated an endless stream of player comparisons from Charles Barkley to Larry Johnson to Bo Jackson. But the one that stands out to me most these days is Blake Griffin -- an upgraded hybrid of Lob City Griffin and Point Forward Griffin.

Just like Williamson, Griffin faced a litany of knee problems at Williamson’s age. As an electric high-flying teenager at Oklahoma, Griffin suffered a sprained MCL in his freshman season in one knee and months later, tore his meniscus in his other knee, requiring arthroscopic surgery to remove the torn cartilage. That’s nearly a carbon copy of Williamson’s past year. 

But there’s an important difference between the two No. 1 overall picks. When Griffin underwent arthroscopic surgery, he missed less than a week. You read that correctly. In a 2013 interview about Derrick Rose’s torn meniscus, Griffin said that, under the watch of the Oklahoma Sooners, he “had surgery on Sunday and played on Saturday.” 

Williamson, on the other hand, missed just over 13 weeks. 

This distinction is important, because the long timetable was by design. The Pelicans have been extra careful with Williamson. They’ve attempted to re-program how Williamson moves around the floor and protect him as much as possible from serious injury. 

At the direction of the Pelicans’ training staff, led by newly-hired VP of Player Care, Aaron Nelson, Williamson needed to reach a series of biomechanical benchmarks in order to get cleared to play. The regimen was mocked by Barkley on TNT, but Williamson said his body “does feel a lot better” on a revealing episode of the JJ Redick Podcast.

“I think the biggest challenge has been just the challenge of rehab,” Williamson said. “You know how tough it is, for hours, people watching you, how you land, how you bend when you do this motion -- over and over? ‘Make sure that knee doesn’t cave in. Make sure it stays out. Make sure it’s above the third toe. Make sure you’re standing straight. Land like this.’ Even when I’m out on the court, it’s still the same thing.”

This is all part of VP of Basketball Operations David Griffin’s plan. Months before Williamson underwent knee surgery, Griffin (no relation to Blake) said the team would exercise “an abundance of caution” when it came to Williamson’s health. At the behest of Griffin, who was hired in April, the team had already invested in a multi-million-dollar upgrade of its practice facility and pried Nelson away from the Phoenix Suns to oversee their player health department.

"I feel like the whole vibe, the whole attitude in the facility and with the staff has just been different," point guard Jrue Holiday told ESPN recently. "It definitely feels like people are ready and excited. It's been like that ever since Griff has come into place."

 

Still, executives around the league have been surprised at how guarded the Pelicans have been with their prized rookie. The team shut Williamson down for the entire Vegas Summer League with a bruised knee after just nine minutes of action. Following the meniscus tear, the official six-to-eight week timetable turned into more than three months on the sidelines. And less than two months into rehab, the team had already ruled him out of playing in back-to-backs, at least initially, upon his return. 

David Griffin has said many times this year that he has never seen a player like Zion Williamson, who is 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds. He claims that Williamson has more lateral quickness than any point guard that has played under him. Keep in mind, Griffin has led or been a part of front offices that employed Kyrie Irving, Steve Nash, Stephon Marbury and Jason Kidd. More mobility than those guys? 

“Yes,” Griffin told me recently. "Without a doubt.”

It remains to be seen how Williamson will fare with the “abundance of caution” approach. But even if Williamson faces chronic knee issues, the Blake Griffin comparison could prove to be an illuminating one for Williamson’s development.

No knee or body is the same, but in surveying executives around the league about what to expect with Williamson’s injury, Griffin’s name popped more often than any player as a reference point. Dating back to college, here’s a history of Griffin’s knee problems: a sprained MCL in his left knee in 2008; a torn meniscus in his right knee in 2008; a broken kneecap in his left knee in 2010; a torn meniscus in his left knee in 2012; a surgical clean-up in his right knee in 2016; another sprained MCL in his left knee in 2017; another torn meniscus in his left knee in 2019; and finally, earlier this month, season-ending surgery to remove a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Knee injuries are rarely a one-time deal (see: Derrick Rose), but players can overcome them and still play at a high-level. Early in his career after a series of knee issues, Griffin was still a wrecking ball around the rim. In his second season, when Lob City became a national sensation, one out of every five of Griffin’s baskets was a dunk, according to Basketball Reference tracking.

But as knee injuries took their toll, Griffin altered his game to be more grounded, yet no less effective. Last season, Griffin dunked the ball once out of every 33 baskets, but he was still an All-Star averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists at the age of 29. Now, instead of a high-flying trapeze artist, Griffin functioned more as a point forward in the Pistons’ offense and made more 3-pointers (189) than any power forward or center last season.

 

In Wednesday’s debut, Williamson showed his capacity to be that type of player for New Orleans right now. Though the world wanted to see him fly all over the floor, Williamson spent most of his time on Wednesday facilitating for others (Pels coach Alvin Gentry, in his mid-game interview, noted that a nervous Williamson was playing “so conservative.”). 

A couple possessions stood out above the rest. In the second quarter, while playing nominally as the Pelicans’ center, Williamson grabbed a rebound, dribbled up the floor as the de-facto point guard and drove right into LaMarcus Aldridge in the lane. When the Spurs player collapsed around Williamson, he left his feet and improvised by kicking it out to a wide-open E’Twaun Moore, who clanked an easy 3-pointer. Good process, bad result. 

Williamson’s trust in his teammate would be rewarded later. Early in the fourth quarter, after skying over Jakob Poeltl for a defensive rebound, again as the Pelicans' center, Williamson led a fastbreak in the open court and threw an absolute laser to a slashing Moore. This time, Moore finished at the rim for Williamson’s third assist of the night. While it was obvious Williamson was rusty after missing three-plus months, his feel for the game jumped off the screen. Plays like those Moore setups demonstrate Williamson’s vision and knack for a Griffin-like evolution as a player. 

Like those passes, Williamson’s most insightful moments Wednesday were not the high-flying leaps but rather the things he did in between. The Spurs practically begged him to take 3-pointers and Williamson stepped into them with confidence, splashing all of them through the net. The doubters who think he’s just a dunker? This was a reckoning.

Gentry pulled Williamson amid his supernova run to protect him from overdoing it in his debut, much to the chagrin of many on the broadcast and on Twitter. But medical staffs are there for a reason. With all the hand-wringing about Williamson’s minutes restriction and their comprehensive approach that drew Barkley’s ridicule, I thought about something Doc Rivers told me in 2017. This was right after Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers and invested heavily in sports science and player health following Donald Sterling’s infamous bargain-basement reign. Rivers said the Clippers “were just behind” in the sports science and training staff, noting that Sterling would only pay for one trainer and one physical therapist. (The Pelicans currently have nine such staffers).

Sitting in his Staples Center office, I asked Rivers whether he thought Griffin’s long line of leg injuries were preventable if the franchise had invested real dollars in player health. He stammered for a while.

 

"With Blake, you know ... you never know. Like, if we ... I don't know. I mean, I actually think Blake's ... you couldn't have ... I think Blake's was probably -- I always say that if you miss games, and he missed with his [broken] hand, then when you come back, everything falls apart next. He had what we call 'one of those years.' And there was nothing you could do about it."

And then Rivers paused.

"But you still wonder, like, if there was ... would we have been ready to do it?"

Hello Zion, the floor-spacer

Williamson’s four triples on Wednesday were a revelation. The Spurs dared him to shoot and he did, splashing every shot as the Smoothie King Center erupted. 

What’s interesting about Zion’s 3-pointer spree is that it came when he was playing the center spot with the second unit. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When playing next to the starting unit of Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Derrick Favors, Williams looked like he was in second gear for much of the night.

As the focal point with the reserves, Williamson broke out. He’ll need to find his spots next to the starters, but I’m not worried about that, considering what we saw in the preseason. Even if he doesn’t consistently hit those 3-pointers yet, he can still be a terror on the perimeter.

Back in 2014, cutting-edge numbers from fancy new player-tracking cameras revealed that Dwyane Wade was an elite floor-spacer. At first blush, this didn’t make sense. Wade wasn’t a great 3-point shooter -- not even a good one. And yet, Wade was treated with the same respect as sharpshooters Kyle Korver, Klay Thompson and J.J. Redick. 

What was happening? Well, Wade was spacing the floor, but not as a 3-pointer. Instead, Wade was causing havoc as a devastating cutter to the rim. Fall asleep even for a second and Wade would dart to the rim for a soaring bucket. If defenders didn’t pay him appropriate attention at the 3-point line, he burned them so often that over time, those sagging defenders adjusted and stuck to him like glue. 

And it drove Wade crazy.

“I’m just like, ‘Damn, did I just start shooting 3s and I didn’t know about it?’,” he told me at the time.

Just like Wade, Williamson will soon have the gravitational pull of the sun. The Pelicans suspect it already. Watch their actions off the ball and you’ll see how Williamson’s cutting abilities will transform him into a devastating floor-spacer -- even if he doesn’t hit a 3-point shot.

When defenders shaded off of Williamson in the corner in his preseason slate of four games, the Pelicans liked to have their center, whether it was Favors or Jahlil Okafor, screen Williamson’s sagging defender. The result was almost always a bucket, because it gave Williamson a runway to play downhill. And if you give Williamson a runway, he will launch himself above the defense.

 

In the preseason, on five off-ball screens for Williamson where he started beyond the 3-point line, the rookie generated five layups, totaling eight points in all, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Flat-footed defenders in his way posed as mere traffic cones. The alternative is defenders stick to Williamson and hope that he can’t break free as easily. 

You may be able to give Williamson the Rajon Rondo treatment on the ball and dare him to shoot. The Spurs did it four times on Wednesday and paid dearly before Williamson checked out (thanks, minutes restriction!).

But off the ball? He can be a nightmare for opponents, even without a knockdown 3-point shot at his disposal. Just ask Dwyane Wade.

Will Zion push the Pelicans into the playoffs?

After Wednesday’s loss, the Pelicans are now 4.5 games behind the Spurs, who sit in sole possession of the No. 8 seed in the West. That’s a noteworthy gap, but Williamson was good enough in his debut to give New Orleans reason to believe that it can make up the deficit by April. 

Buckle in because there is still a very real chance that we’ll be gifted an Anthony Davis Bowl playoff, with New Orleans facing Davis’ top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first-round. 

To get into the playoffs, the Pelicans would have to leapfrog four other teams: Memphis, Phoenix, Portland and San Antonio, just to get there. And yet, FiveThirtyEight.com’s projections have the Pelicans as 53-percent favorites to get into the postseason. 

It all has to do with the schedule. 

Expecting to have box-office-superstar Williamson healthy, the NBA heavily scheduled the Pelicans against marquee teams in their early primetime slate. The result was a brutally-difficult schedule in the opening months without one of the Pelicans’ best players. But that also means the Pelicans are facing the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA.

The Pelicans have already said that they’re planning to rest Williamson during back-to-backs, but they only have three of those sets left on the schedule, with the next one not until early March. If Williamson sits the second night of those three back-to-backs and plays 34 of the Pelicans’ final 37 games, they should be doing backflips. 

Integrating a star midseason is always tricky without the ramp up of training camp and preseason. Paul George didn’t make his Clippers debut until a month into the season due to shoulder rehab and is now nursing a nagging hamstring injury that has sidelined him for seven of the last eight games. Kyrie Irving is also dealing with a sore hamstring after playing four games following a two-month layoff with a hurt shoulder.

Soft-tissue injuries like a strained hamstring are the things that keep trainers up at night, because those are usually caused by overuse. The Pelicans can certainly make a playoff push if Williamson plays like he did on Wednesday. But Griffin’s revamped staff will certainly be monitoring Williamson’s workload going forward -- and with good reason.

 

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