LOS ANGELES (AFP) — New Orleans rookie Zion Williamson flashed some brilliance in his long-awaited NBA debut, but the San Antonio Spurs spoiled the party at Smoothie King Center with a 121-117 victory over the Pelicans.
Williamson, who was the number one overall draft pick in June, offered a tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come in his career when he exploded for 17 points in little more than three minutes in the fourth quarter.
The 19-year-old sensation had been sidelined since arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on the eve of the Pelicans’ season-opener in October.
He made a tentative start, scoring just five points with four rebounds, one assist four turnovers in less than 12 minutes on the floor over the first three quarters.
With 8:52 remaining and the Spurs up 99-91, Williamson connected with a three-pointer from the top of the key that ignited the crowd of 18,365.
He followed up with an alley-oop layup, fed by Lonzo Ball, drained a trey and put back his own miss with a spinning layup before adding two more three-pointers.
The crowd was chanting “M-V-P!” as he capped the burst with a free throw, but he was soon subbed out of the game as Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry stuck to the plan of playing Williamson only in short bursts.
“I think what you saw there is just a taste,” Gentry said. “There’s a lot of potential there.”
He said he’d counseled Williamson at halftime to be more aggressive, and he was pleased to see him deliver.
“I think there’s a really, really high ceiling that he can reach, and he can reach it soon,” added Gentry, who nevertheless was impervious to the cries of “We want Zion” from fans late in the fourth quarter.
“It was very hard,” Williamson admitted of coming out of the game just as he had found his rhythm. “I’m 19. Honestly, in that moment I’m not thinking about longevity I’m thinking about winning that game.”
“So it was very tough,” added Williamson, who finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
The Spurs, who led by as many as 15 and by 12 to start the fourth quarter, were up 109-108 when Williamson departed and quickly pulled away again.
LaMarcus Aldridge led the Spurs with 32 points and DeMar DeRozan added 20 for a San Antonio team holding down the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
Williamson, who admitted on Tuesday he wasn’t sure just how much sleep he’d get on the eve of his debut, said that as the pre-game introductions were made he just told himself to “be calm.”
He said it wasn’t just Gentry who urged him at halftime to defer less but also teammates including Jrue Holiday.
“I think he did well,” Holiday said, commending the teenager’s poise.
“We’re almost in February and he hadn’t played a game yet, so for him to come out and do that his first game is pretty elite.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was pleased to have a courtside seat for Williamson’s debut.
“Oh, yeah, it’s great stuff, I’m glad he’s back, a talent like that,” Popovich said. “He’s a great guy on top of it all. So it’s good for the Pelicans. It’s good for basketball. He’s quite a package as a player and as a person.”