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Zion Williamson is back and energizing New Orleans like never before

The Pelicans’ prized rookie did not disappoint in his long-awaited NBA debut

NEW ORLEANS – Long after the buzzer sounded in one of the most highly anticipated debuts in NBA history, there was a gleam in New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry’s eye with Zion Williamson’s future in mind.

“Now I think he can just relax and play,” Gentry told The Undefeated. “For him, he wanted so badly to just get this over with that I think he will be more relaxed next time. He’s real special, though, I’m telling you.”

Williamson, who was on a minutes restriction, struggled for the first three quarters (five points, four turnovers) and appeared rusty. But in the fourth quarter, the rookie erupted for 17 points in 118 seconds and nailed all four of his 3-point attempts. Fans roared in excitement and broke out in MVP chants as the No. 1 pick of the 2019 draft helped the Pelicans take the lead against the San Antonio Spurs. But during Williamson’s hot streak, the Pelicans’ medical staff pleaded for Gentry to take him out of the game. After squeezing out two more minutes, Williamson left with 5:23 remaining after unsuccessfully pleading his case to stay in.

“He was saying, ‘Please don’t take me out. I’m going to win that game for us. Please!’” Gentry said about Williamson. “I said, ‘I don’t have a choice.’ I said, ‘I can leave you in, but you’ll have a new coach in the morning. …

“I haven’t seen that. Nothing like that. And that ain’t even scratching the surface.”

The Pelicans lost in the end, 121-117, but Williamson’s debut was a success.

Williamson said his debut was everything he had dreamed of except for the loss.

“The energy the crowd brought, the energy the city brought, it was electric and I’m just grateful they did that. It was a dream come true to finally get out there,” Williamson said. “But at the end of the day, I did want to win so just got to look at the next game.”

Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans talks with Head Coach Alvin Gentry of the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center on January 22, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There’s no debating that New Orleans is a football town. The Pelicans are a distant third behind the New Orleans Saints and LSU football. But this night belonged to Zion. At Desi Vega’s Steakhouse about a half mile away, all the reservations were full for the 6 p.m. seating accounting for 167 patrons. Vega himself said it was the first time his restaurant was ever packed before a Pelicans game. Even former Pelicans star Anthony Davis could not get the locals to come in droves for some pregame Who Dat Shrimp.

“The city was so hyped for his return tonight,” said Vega, who attended the game. “It was packed just like on a Sunday for a Saints game.”

Former professional boxer Elliot “Brown Bomber” Forman and barber, Jerome Boatner sat first row behind the Pelicans’ bench. The seats cost $1,900 tickets for two tickets.

Marc J. Spears

Former professional boxer Elliot “Brown Bomber” Forman said he paid $1,900 for two tickets in the first row behind the Pelicans’ bench for himself and his barber, Jerome Boatner. Forman said he last had New Orleans season tickets when Chris Paul was playing for the Hornets.

“I personally wanted to see if it’s real,” Forman said. “I absolutely didn’t mind spending the money. I wanted the [expensive] seats to find out.”

Still, the city of New Orleans appeared to be erring on the side of caution with Williamson’s debut in the same way the team was with his return after he suffered a preseason knee injury.

The Pelicans entered the night 24th in the NBA in attendance, averaging 16,132 fans, and there were still tickets available online Wednesday morning — upper deck seats were going for less than $20. The game did end up selling out with 18,364 fans and 99% of the seats filled. But Davis, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers brought out more fans on Thanksgiving eve (18,626) in the return of the former Pelicans star.

With that said, there has not been a more anticipated rookie debut in the NBA since LeBron first suited up in 2003 with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

ESPN publicized its airing of Williamson’s debut in commercials, on its daily shows and in every other way possible before airing the game. The Pelicans credentialed more than 160 media members for the game and turned others away. The Pelicans scratched their old pregame intro video in favor of one using Lil Wayne’s song “Fireman” with Williamson’s arrival.

“It was a fun night,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “The atmosphere was amazing. I enjoyed the energy in the building. Been coming here for years and I don’t think it’s ever been this energetic in this building.”

Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans passes the ball around LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs at Smoothie King Center on January 22, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

David Griffin, Pelicans president of basketball operations, has worked closely with superstars, including James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, as a general manager of the Cavaliers. But he said Williamson’s popularity appears on a different level. When Williamson works out pregame at home or on the road, media and fans arrive early, filming every millisecond and hoping for a rim-shaking dunk.

“He has already adapted to all the attention,” Griffin said. “We’re a traveling road show already. I have never seen anybody get as much attention as he does from the breadth of people that he does. He is doing incredibly well. He’s a grounded, humble kid. … We had LeBron, Kyrie and K-Love [in Cleveland], which is two signature shoe guys. But interest in our pregame shooting, the number of people that take to the arena early, I have never seen that.”

National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said before the season that she is keeping an eye on how Williamson handles the attention.

“I wasn’t working in the sport when LeBron came in,” Roberts said. “But this is the most excitement I have seen over a draft pick. Obviously, it’s great for the game. The excitement he is generating will enhance our fan base. He’s got a lot of people with really huge expectations. And he is a really young guy. I hope he can handle, but it is going to be stressful.

“The expectations are over-the-top. He’s a pretty good player. I think he will be able to meet the expectations. But I am always worried about somebody that young. To already be the face of the franchise, I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it at 18, 19.”

Rookie of the year frontrunner Ja Morant couldn’t be happier that Williamson, his former AAU teammate, is back in action.

“That is my brother. I’ve played with him from a young age. I’ve been talking to him since. I root for him. I’m really excited to see him get back on the floor, showcase his abilities on the court and represent South Carolina,” Morant recently told The Undefeated.

Zion lived up to all the hype in his debut. The only thing missing was a signature dunk and a victory. But the city of New Orleans finally got its first taste of life with its new larger-than-life superstar.

“I like him because he’s a good kid, man,” Gentry said. “All he wants to do is win. … They love him here and I can see why. He has really embraced this city. He loves this city.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.