It was a Tale of Two Zions.
The first three quarters didn't feature much beyond some opening jitters, a few fleeting glimpses and considerable rust. Five points and four turnovers in 12 minutes for a 19-year-old rookie that hasn't played in three months means he looked like well... a 19-year-old rookie that hasn't played in three months.
And then it happened.
First a dump off dime.
Then a rebound and cross-court pass for another easy bucket.
And then a three minute stretch in which he scored 17 straight points for the Pelicans.
Here's a quick dive into the Tale of Two Zions followed by five burning questions in the immediate aftermath of a wild debut.
First three quarters
If you were looking hard for some positive signs of Williamson's potential, here are some things that would have led to forced think pieces:
- A nice assist to a cutting Brandon Ingram after getting doubled
- Some drive and kicks resulting in missed 3s
- The second jump and hustle on his first basket following an offensive rebound
And that's about it.
Williamson's first three quarters featured twice as many turnovers (four) as made baskets (two) and he never seemed to find a rhthym, admittedly difficult when playing for three or four minute stretches at a time. Outside of his three attempts and an offensive foul, wasn't heavily involved or active.
He looked understandably hesitant, not helped by teammates who seemed equally uncomfortable as they missed their first 11 shots from outside the paint.
Taking over the fourth quarter
On the very first possession of the fourth quarter, Williamson aggressively drove, spun, lofted a runner... and missed.
But don't play the results because up until that point, it was by far his most aggressive play of the night and served as the spark which ignited a white-hot fireball the size of the sun.
Following a jumper by Marco Bellinelli which put the Spurs up 10, Williamson then scored or assisted on 21 straight points over a stretch of just over four minutes.
Here's the play-by-play:
- 9:47 - assist to Josh Hart
- 9:19 - assist to E'Twaun Moore
- 8:52 - made 3-pointer
- 8:27 - alley-oop layup
- 7:53 - made 3-pointer
- 7:22 - offensive rebound and putback
- 7:00 - made 3-pointer
- 6:18 - made 3-pointer
- 5:44 - made free throw
I need a cold towel, a glass of ice water and a cold shower.
MORE: How Zion's debut compares to MJ, LeBron and others
At one point, head coach Alvin Gentry pulled back a sub from the scorer's table set to come in for Williamson. That happened before the chorus of MVP chants came crashing down from the raucous sellout crowd of 18,365.
Here are his highlights from the entire game because let's be honest, video > words,
No. 1 overall draft pick @Zionwilliamson goes for 22 PTS (4-4 3PM), including 17 straight 4th quarter points, in his NBA debut for the @PelicansNBA! #NBARooks x #WontBowDown pic.twitter.com/WrcChMAWSe- NBA (@NBA) January 23, 2020
Five Burning Questions
The box score doesn't begin to do justice to what he did in that debut so here are five burning questions in the immediate aftermath.
1) What if he stayed in the game?
The plan entering was to play him for 3-4 minute stretches and that's exactly what the Pelicans did for the first three quarters. And then Williamson turned into a flame thrower and forced Gentry to make the impossibly difficult decision to pull him for good with 5:44 left in the game.
Williamson single-handedly - QUITE LITERALLY - brought them back from double digits down to take the lead. But in the end, the team kept the longview in mind and opted not to get swept up in the moment for the sake of his long-term health.
In the end, it took incredible resolve for Gentry and the Pelicans to make the difficult decision to pull him out, knowing that beyond the scintillating performance this was actually a vitally important game against an opponent also vying for that eighth and final playoff spot.
2) What happens when he's no longer on a minutes restriction?
Pray for the other 29 teams.
He finished as tied for his team lead in scoring despite playing just 18 minutes. There's no question that with more consistent time on the floor that he'll be able to get in the flow earlier and dictate the terms of engagement from the jump.
The sky is the limit.
3) Should he play centre?
That stretch in which he went off? It came playing the five which meant no clogged lanes and even though he scored 12 of those points from beyond the arc, part of the reason for those clean looks is because those opposing bigs didn't chase him outside.
Williamson dominated playing at the five in the preseason and Wednesday against San Antonio was no different.
4) What if he can shoot?
Again... pray for the other 29 teams.
The Spurs left him open and he made them pay all four times. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Williamson became the first player in NBA history to go 4-4 or better from the 3-point line in an NBA debut.
He's not doing that every time out but if Williamson can provide even a modicum of that floor-stretching ability, he's going to be even more frightening than perhaps anyone ever imagined.
5) Are we sure that Rookie of the Year is out of reach?
Let's make one thing clear: Ja Morant is the runaway leader.
For Williamson to even make it interesting, he would need to be simply spectacular from here on out with not only prolific production but night-to-night electricity to help fuel that narrative.
If this is a sign of things to come than Morant should view Williamson as an object in his rearview mirror that starts to look closer and closer.
Keep these dates in mind: January 31. March 21. March 24.
That's when Morant and Williamson are schedule to square off in the coming months.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.