With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his slow start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got what they came to see during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first half looking like a rookie who had not played much ane was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA Power Rankings: Milwaukee on top, Jazz pass Lakers for second

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Milwaukee, on a seven-game winning streak, continues to hold on to the top slot, but the Lakers recent troubles — combined with the Jazz being on a hot streak — has Utah moving up to the second slot (with the two Los Angeles teams right on their tail).

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (39-6, Last Week No. 1). One does not hear the words “load management” and “Giannis Antetokounmpo” in the same sentence often, but that’s because the Bucks have been able to keep his minutes in check by blowing teams out. Antetokounmpo has played in 41 of the Bucks 45 games but is 48th in the NBA in total minutes played — Cedi Osman and Tomas Satoransky have played more total minutes. That’s because the Bucks are destroying teams and letting the Greek Freak have large parts of the fourth quarter off. He’s averaging just 30.6 minutes a night. The last time coach Mike Budenholzer had Antetokounmpo on the court for more than 35 minutes in a game was Nov. 27th.

 
Jazz small icon 2. Jazz (30-13, LW 3). Mike Conley returned on Saturday and has fit in well off the bench in a couple of blowout wins. That leads to the question: Should Conley become Utah’s sixth man? On paper that works because the current starting five — Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale (who just got a contract extension), Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert — has been dominant, with a +22.5 net rating this season, and defensively that group gives up less than a point per possession. However, will Conley willingly accept that role? Could everything change during the playoffs? And who will close games?

 
Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (34-9, LW No. 2). It would be a mistake to overreact to one ugly loss to the Celtics, in the middle of January, during a long road trip. It happens. However, if you’re looking for a thread that ties together the Lakers’ losses to Boston and Orlando last week it is transition defense — both teams had success running on L.A. The Lakers are third best in the NBA in half court defense but middle of the pack in transition defense (stats via Cleaning the Glass). This is a regular season concern, but maybe less of a postseason concern (because the games tend to slow down). The Lakers play the Clippers next Wednesday and a win helps make their “Best in LA” case.

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (31-13, LW 7). In his last six games, Kawhi Leonard has averaged 36 points per contest on 55.8% shooting overall, plus 5.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game. He’s looked like the all-world player from last postseason. Lou Williams was asked over the weekend what has changed with Leonard in recent games: “I think he just got his legs. He won a championship, I think he took a break, and basketball is a rhythm game. He’s just playing consistently now, getting his legs under him, and he’s more comfortable with the guys he’s playing with now.”

 
Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (30-13, LW 6). Jamal Murray is going to miss some time with a sprained ankle, and don’t be surprised if we’re talking weeks according to the buzz around the league. That’s a blow to Denver, which is +9.6 per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (using Cleaning the Glass stats, which filter out garbage time). The timing of Murray’s injury is rough for Denver as it struggles to hold on to a high seed in the tight West and has 7 of its next 10 games on the road.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (28-14, LW 5). The utter destruction of the rival Lakers on MLK day ended a three-game losing streak (and 6-of-8), and it also was the first game in a week where the normally solid Boston defense looked like itself. Defense and slow starts — even the Lakers opened on an 8-0 run before falling apart — have been issues Brad Stevens has been focused on in recent weeks. With the Celtics healthy again the inconsistent bench shooting should be less of an issue.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (30-13, LW 8). Jimmy Butler is a lock for the All-Star Game — he might even start, if the media/players vote him in — and he should be joined by Bam Adebayo (who the coaches will need to vote in as a reserve). With an efficient 16 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, plus strong defense, Adebayo deserves a spot on the ASG roster. Miami went 2-3 in a recent run of road games, but came home where they are 19-1 on the season for five games. Good tests coming up with the Clippers on Friday and the Celtics next Tuesday.

 
Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (29-14, LW 9). The Raptors are finally healthy — Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell are all back in the lineup — and not coincidentally the Raptors have won four in a row. After Philly on Wednesday night the Raptors have six games in a row against teams below .500, expect them to rack up wins as Masai Ujiri decides whether to be a seller at the trade deadline or to stick with the roster he has and see how much noise they can make in the postseason.

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (29-16, LW 13). Winners of four in a row despite continued offensive issues — the Sixers are bottom 10 in offensive rating during that time (and over the past 10 games). After looking at the roster for half a season Elton Brand is checking out the trade market looking for shooting and playmakers, eyeing Derrick Rose for the point and wings Robert Covington and Malik Beasley. If the goal is winning the East this season and having a real shot in the Finals the Sixers may be one player away still.

 
Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (27-16, LW 12). Dallas has lost Dwight Powell for the season with a ruptured Achilles and he is going to be difficult to replace. It’s not just the 9.6 points and 5.7 rebounds a game Powell gave them, but also he brought grit and a willingness to do the dirty work needed inside to allow Kristaps Porzingis to play his pick-and-pop game on the outside. Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic will get more run but it’s not the same.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (28-16, LW 10). This ranking is too low for this team, but it sadly kind of fits the trend of media overlooking the Pacers and coach Nate McMillan. Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon are both on the bubble for making the All-Star Game, but expect one of them to get a nod from the coaches for a reserve spot. Sabonis is battling a bruised knee but got his first career triple-double anyway, and in general the Pacers are getting healthy and look like a team that could make a run up the East standings (and these rankings).

 
Rockets small icon 12. Rockets (26-16, LW 4). Losers of four in a row and 5-of-6, just as Russell Westbrook is taking on a larger role and seeming more comfortable in the offense. Coincidence? The problem for the Rockets over the past six games has been the offense, just 19th in the league over that stretch, not good enough to cover up for a defense that has struggled all season. Houston takes on Denver on Wednesday night then takes off for four on the road, including a difficult Denver/Utah back-to-back.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (25-19, LW 11). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became the youngest player in NBA history to rack up a 20-20 triple-double last week — he continues to be a great get from the Paul George trade, someone who OKC can build around. Expect the trade rumors to fly around this team in the coming weeks, but also expect the big names — Chris Paul and Steven Adams — to stay put, mostly because their contracts are so large and hard to match. Danilo Gallinari remains a name that comes up in a lot of trade discussions, he’s the guy that could be on the move. If anyone will be.

 
Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (20-23, LW 14). Over the past 10 games, the Grizzlies have the third best offense in the NBA, which is overwhelming opponents and has he Grizzlies in the playoffs if they started today. Ja Morant continues to lead the team on that end of the floor, running away with the Rookie of the Year race (no way Zion can catch him) and putting up ridiculous highlights every time he steps on the court.

 
Magic small icon 15. Magic (21-23, LW 15). Orlando got its signature win of the season so far beating the Lakers (ending L.A.’s nine-game win streak) behind a Markelle Fultz triple-double, but consistency has not been Fultz’s or this team’s strength. That’s especially troubling with backup point guard D.J. Augustin likely to miss three-to-four weeks with bone irritation in his knee, he was a stabilizing influence on this roster (and a potential trade chip that just got harder to move). Evan Fournier is still drawing a lot of trade interest from other teams, but the Magic are a playoff team right now (5 game cushion) and are not having a fire sale, it’s going to take a quality offer to get a deal done.

 
Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (19-23, LW 17). San Antonio has settled into its identity this season: A top-10 offensive team led by efficient shooting from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, but a bottom five defense that continues to put their playoff streak in jeopardy. DeRozan has a good case to get an All-Star game invite, however the West is so stacked at the guard position that it seems a longshot he (or Aldridge) make the final cut. It will be in the hands of the coaches, who vote on the reserves.

 
Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (19-26, LW 19). This week’s trade — which sent out Kent Bazemore and brought back Trevor Ariza — was mostly about reducing Portland’s league-largest tax bill (now down to $6.2 million). Can’t blame ownership for not wanting to pay the tax for this team, which means expect another trade — Hassan Whiteside? — or two as the deadline nears to get all the way under the tax. Also, did you see Lillard’s ridiculous 61?

 
Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (17-27, LW 20). Zion Williamson finally makes his debut for the Pelicans Wednesday night, and that means a few things. One is dunks — highlight dunks nightly. But it also means a playoff push from a team that is not out of the mix (3.5 games back) and has gone 11-5 in its last 16 before Zion’s arrival. The Pelicans have stepped back from the edge of trading away their best veterans, for now, to see how well this team can perform together and if they can make a legitimate push for the postseason.

 
Suns small icon 19. Suns (18-25, LW 21). Since the calendar flipped to 2020, Deandre Ayton has averaged 19.4 points per game on 55.4% shooting, plus pulling down 12.4 rebounds a game — those are All-Star level numbers if he had played enough games (and wasn’t in the West, which is deep with good centers). Devin Booker will make his first All-Star appearance this season because the coaches will vote him in as a reserve (unlike the fan vote, Alex Caruso is not getting a spot). Phoenix has won 4-of-6 and remains within striking distance of the playoffs.

 
Nets small icon 20. Nets (18-24, LW 16). Kyrie Irving returned right as Brooklyn hit a tough part of the schedule, so it’s not on him the team has dropped four in a row. It was on him that Irving gave an ill-timed “state of the franchise” statement that led to days of news cycle, with each story talking about his 6-of-21 shooting against Philly. The good news for the Nets is that after the Lakers on Thursday the schedule softens up for a couple of weeks.

 
Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (16-29, LW 23). Zach LaVine is a player on the bubble for making the All-Star team in the East, but the game being in Chicago this season may give him a boost with coaches. I thought Lauri Markkanen would evolve into an All-Star level player but he’s been pretty average this season, averaging 14.9 points per game but not excelling in any one area. Markkanen has spent most of his season at the four, but is seeing more time at center with Wendell Carter Jr. out injured.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (16-28, LW 25). Andre Drummond is available via trade, but the market for him — especially at $27.1 million this season, has been limited. That should inform Drummond about what awaits him if he opts out of the last season of his contract ($28.8 million) and tests the free agent waters, but it sounds like he is headed to playing the field this July.

 
Kings small icon 23. Kings (15-28, LW 18). De’Aaron Fox is back healthy and the Kings are playing fast again. After being the slowest paced team in the league through November and December, the Kings are top 10 in pace in their last 10 games. Fox is averaging 22.7 points and 8.3 assists per game in January, but the Kings have lost six in a row and need to turn things around to end the longest playoff draught in the NBA.

 
24. Timberwolves (15-28, LW 22). The “Andrew Wiggins has figured it out” narrative got flowing in November when he averaged 27.1 points per game on a 56.6 true shooting percentage, plus he made some clutch plays. But in December that TS% fell to 51.7 (the league average is around 56), and in January Wiggins is scoring 15.4 points per game with a 48 TS%. Wiggins is back to being what he has always been, a nice rotational player who has night that remind you of that potential, but mostly is an average starter. Just one on a max contract owed $93.9 million over the three seasons after this one (fully guaranteed).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (14-28, LW 24). Bradley Beal may well be frustrated, but he took the big checks and now he is going to be with the Wizards for a while, the only place he is going is to Chicago for the All-Star Game (as a reserve). There’s no real trade buzz there. However, there is a lot of trade buzz around Davis Bertans, numerous teams are interested in the big shooting 43.3% from three, and that leaves the Pelicans with a choice: He’d fit great next to John Wall and Beal next season and the Wizards have talked about re-signing him, but Bertans is a free agent. If Washington isn’t sure they can re-sign him, they will have to consider those deadline trade offers.

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (12-32, LW 26). RJ Barrett is out for a week with a sprained ankle, reducing the reasons to watch this team play — unless you’re scouting Marcus Morris for a trade. Which a lot of teams are doing. Morris is a hot name because a lot of teams could use his combination of shooting and defense inside. But can the Knicks get a protected first or enough else in return to get a trade worth it?

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (10-34, LW 29). It’s just been two games, but so far the “Jeff Teague is here to help the second unit wile Trae Young sits” experiment has had mixed results. Teague has come off the bench and for two games and shot 7-of-12 for 17 points, but is still -19 in those games (because one man cannot save that bench unit). The Hawks lost both games. Atlanta did pick up a quality win in San Antonio Friday night on a Kevin Huerter game winner.

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (12-32, LW 27). Bright spots are hard to find for a team with this record in a five-game losing streak (and 10-of-12), but here is one: In January Collin Sexton is shooting 46.3% from three on nearly five attempts per game. If the second-year guard can start to hit that consistently — and continues his overall improved play this month — he becomes much more valuable to Cleveland.

 
Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (10-35 LW 30). Stephen Curry is targeting March 1 for a return to the court, although at this point expect him to be on a minutes limit and for him still to get plenty of nights off this season. The Warriors are thinking about next season, not this one. They snapped their 10-game losing streak thanks to catching Orlando on the last night of a West Coast road swing, but the win still counts. Then MLK day it took a ridiculous 61 from Damian Lillard to hold the Warriors off.

 
Hornets small icon 30. Hornets (15-30, LW 28). Charlotte was booked to play in an NBA game in Paris (this Friday, against Milwaukee) because Tony Parker was on this roster last season. Except, then Parker retired. Still, Charlotte gets a nice mid-season trip. My word of advice: If the Hornets are going to the Louvre, “Winged Victory” and “Liberty Leading the People” are more inspiring than the “Mona Lisa” and “Venus de Milo.”

Zion Williamson says he was meditating (not falling asleep) on Pelicans bench

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Zion Williamson looked quite dozy on the bench during a recent Pelicans game.

But no, no, no, he wasn’t falling asleep.

Andrew Lopez of ESPN:

With all the hoopla – and actually playing! – expect Williamson to look more alert tonight.

Here are three more things to expect in Williamson’s NBA debut.

Three things to expect in Zion Williamson’s debut

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Finally.

At Summer League in Las Vegas, the Thomas and Mack was full but fans got just nine minutes of Zion Williamson, one half of basketball, before he was shut down following a knee-to-knee collision with another player. Zion was done for the summer as the Pelicans were overly cautious.

Preseason saw Williamson get into four games and start to look like the force of nature that he was at Duke, the franchise-changing player who was the runaway consensus No. 1 pick, and he averaged 23.3 points per game on 68.8 percent shooting. Then Williamson tore his right lateral meniscus, needed surgery, and ultimately was out far longer than the original 6-8 week projections as the Pelicans were overly cautious.

Wednesday night, Williamson finally makes his NBA debut, lacing up his Nikes against San Antonio at home in New Orleans.

What should we expect in Zion’s debut (with him likely on a minutes limit)? Here are three things to watch for.

1) Dunks. A lot of dunks.

Zion Williamson is an incredibly gifted athlete but right now his game is not filled with subtlety and craft — the manchild attacks the rim and finishes. With authority.

Look at Williamson’s shot chart from the preseason: He took just four shots outside the paint.

This is not a knock on Williamson’s game — the dunk is the most efficient shot on the court, f you can get it, take it. Williamson has skills — a crossover he uses in transition, an inside-out dribble, and more — that he uses to get to the rim, and he wants to finish every play the same way.

Which is exactly what the Pelicans need.

New Orleans has good shot creators — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram — and they have shooters such as J.J. Redick. What New Orleans could use is a threat that goes to the rim and forces defenses to collapse a little, opening up space (Derrick Favors has provided some of that). The Pelicans could use a player who can draw fouls and attacks the rim. That’s Zion. He should fit in beautifully on offense.

One scout I talked to (and he wasn’t the only person to make this comparison) said Williamson’s early career could resemble Blake Griffin’s in this sense: When he entered the league, Griffin was a high-flying dunking sensation who got his points at the rim, but eventually he developed an outside shot and a passing game that made him a much more rounded, All-NBA level player. Williamson has work to do on his other skills, but the man is going to dunk the ball in his debut.

2) The start of a playoff push in New Orleans.

Williamson’s injury was not the only one that hit the Pelicans: Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday, and Lonzo Ball have all missed significant chunks of time. Combine all of that with a newly formed roster, and the Pelicans got off to a dreadful start.

However, the rest of the bottom half of the West was equally dreadful. The result is that while New Orleans is just 17-27, Williamson’s return finds the Pelicans only 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the West. What’s more, the Pelicans have hit a groove going 11-5 in their last 16 with Ingram playing at an All-Star level to lead the offense and Favors providing a defensive anchor. Ball is starting to find a comfort zone in Alvin Gentry’s offense, which is allowing Holiday to work more at his natural two-guard spot.

Now enter Williamson and the Pelicans are thinking playoff push — they have pulled back on trade talks to see how things shake out over the next couple of weeks.

One other thing in its favor: New Orleans has the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the Western Conference (only Atlanta is easier overall). Only one team New Orleans faces in its final 15 has a winning record — that’s a schedule set up for a closing kick.

With Zion back in the fold, the Pelicans are going to make a run at it.

3) How well do Zion and Brandon Ingram mesh?

This is the $168 million question for the Pelicans.

(It’s less expectation than a question, one that could be a five-year $202 million question if Ingram can play his way onto an All-NBA team this season, which may not be likely but certainly is possible.)

Ingram has played his way into that size max contract this summer and if the Pelicans don’t give it to him another team will (the most another team could offer is four-years, $125 million). David Griffin has talked about keeping Ingram, the team is expected to back up the Brinks truck for him, but that doesn’t change the question:

Can Ingram and Zion coexist on the court?

Before the season — and still in a lot of minds — there are doubts about how well the games of the slashing, attacking Ingram and Williamson would fit together. Could this be another version of the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid concerns in Philly, where two elite players want to operate in the same space and it clogs things up?

Ingram has developed a reliable jump shot this season — 39.9 percent from three on 6.2 attempts per game — and that has opened up his game. It also means he should fit better next to Williamson. However, the Pelicans likely want to see how all this works before they pay Ingram all that money this summer.

Williamson and Ingram may become the cornerstones of an outstanding New Orleans team in the future, but the questions about fit will linger until the players answer them. Those are not questions that are going to be answered in Williamson’s debut, but it’s something to watch.