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Zion Williamson doesn’t feel added pressure with Pelicans debut

Pelicans rookie forward Zion Williamson.
Pelicans rookie forward Zion Williamson talks to reporters Tuesday at the team’s training facility in Metairie, La.
(Max Becherer / The Advocate )

The debut of Zion Williamson is finally here after a long delay following knee surgery and requests by the New Orleans Pelicans for the 6-foot-6, 284-pound rookie to make some changes that would improve his flexibility and technique.

Williamson stood before the media Tuesday with a basketball in his hands at the Pelicans’ practice facility and admitted how difficult it had been to get to the point where he could play in his first NBA regular-season game, which is coming up Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs at Smoothie King Center.

He had surgery Oct. 21 to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee that was supposed to keep him out six to eight weeks. But it has taken about three months for Williamson and the Pelicans to feel that it’s time for the player, the first overall pick in June’s draft, to step onto the court.

“The rehab workouts, they were long and strenuous,” said Williamson, the college player of the year as a freshman for Duke in 2018-19. “There were a lot of times when I just wanted to punch a wall or kick chairs. It’s frustrating to not be able to move your body the way you want to, not to make any athletic movement. I mean, it’s tough, especially since I’m 19 and haven’t even played my first NBA game. It was tough, but I battled through it.”

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Williamson played in four preseason games for the Pelicans, averaging 23.3 points on 71.4% shooting and 6.5 rebounds.

He experienced knee soreness and didn’t play in New Orleans’ final preseason game.

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New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson speaks with reporters Tuesday.

Then he had the surgery, which was followed by one delay after another.

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“It’s been very difficult,” Williamson said. “If y’all saw me meditating on the sidelines. … It’s been very difficult, but it’s finally here, finally get to go back out there.”

Williamson was joking about the two times cameras caught him dozing off on the bench during a Pelicans game.

With his first game on the horizon, Williamson was asked how much he thought he’d sleep Tuesday night.

“Honestly, I don’t know if I’m going to get sleep,” Williamson said. “I’m going to be too excited thinking about my first NBA game.”

Williamson is an explosive leaper, and his sheer size means there’s considerable force behind each jump. The Pelicans wanted him to work on his technique, which could help prevent injury.

He said he’d become more flexible and had been “working on my landing a lot.”

“I think it’s just not landing straight-leg, kind of not letting all my forces go to my legs,” Williamson said. “It’s a lot of technical stuff I really couldn’t explain to you, to be honest. I could probably show you on video better.

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“I did learn a lot about my body in this time period. That came a lot from watching film, and where to use my energy and try to make smarter reads and not exhaust so much energy.”

The city of New Orleans has embraced Williamson, viewing him as the next big star in the Crescent City.

When the Pelicans won the draft lottery and the right to select Williamson with the first pick, ticket demand and prices increased.

When the team announced that Williamson’s debut was likely to be Jan. 22, ticket prices spiked 1,000%, according to TicketIQ.

With that in mind, he was asked how good he could be in the near term.

“Aw, man, do I get to even determine that?” Williamson said. “My plan ... is to just go out there and just contribute where coach needs me.”

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He doesn’t see his first appearance as coming with added pressure.

That’s because Williamson said he had so much support from his teammates, the Pelicans organization and his mother, Sharonda Sampson.

“They’re with me,” Williamson said. “Through all the hard stuff, they are going to be with me, and I think my mom as well, she always looks at me and goes, ‘Nobody told you this is going to be easy.’ So it’s a part of the journey. I embrace it and I get to play.”


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