The long wait for Zion Williamson is almost over as the celebrated rookie is set to make his NBA debut tonight. He was projected to miss six to eight weeks after undergoing meniscus surgery in late October, but the actual recovery time turned out to be 13 1/2 weeks as the Pelicans were extremely cautious with their franchise cornerstone. Williamson tells Andrew Lopez of ESPN that the long wait was often difficult for him to accept.
“There’s a lot of times when I wanted to punch a wall or kick chairs because it’s frustrating,” Williamson said. “To not be able to move your body the way you want to, not to make any athletic movements; I mean, it’s tough. Especially because I’m 19 and I haven’t even played my first NBA game. It was tough but I battled through it.”
The rehab process included changes to his diet and the way he moves to help reduce the stress on his knees. That includes learning a new way to land after jumping.
“I think it’s not landing straight legs, kind of don’t let all my force go into my legs,” he said. “It’s a lot of technical stuff. I really couldn’t explain it to you, to be honest. I could probably show you on a video better.”
Williamson is aware of the immense expectations surrounding his first regular season game. A sell-out crowd is anticipated, and teammate Brandon Ingram said this week he expects every home game to be sold out for the rest of the season. The Pelicans have played their way back into the playoff race after a 6-22 start, and fans believe Williamson will push them over the top.
He doesn’t mind sharing that enthusiasm.
“We did go through a bad stretch, but things have turned around,” Williamson said. “Everybody’s been playing better. I’m just looking to go join in and have some fun.”
There’s more surrounding the star rookie’s first game:
- The Pelicans have “really pulled back in trade talks among all their players” in hopes of making a playoff push, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Tuesday on SportsCenter (video link from Tommy Beer of Forbes). The New Orleans front office wants to see how the team does in the seven games before the February 6 trade deadline before making a decision on the availability of Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick, Woj adds.
- Williamson’s debut comes with a few concerns, notes Dan Devine of The Ringer. Playing alongside Derrick Favors gives the Pelicans two frontcourt players with limited shooting range, and Zion’s presence might take away shots from Ingram, who is making a bid for the All-Star team. Also there are questions about whether New Orleans’ best small-ball lineup — Williamson, Ingram, Holiday, Redick and Lonzo Ball — can defend well enough to be effective.
- Williamson has half a season to try to pass Grizzlies guard Ja Morant in the Rookie of the Year race, writes Preston Ellis of Bleacher Report, who observes that nobody has ever won the award while playing fewer than 50 games.