Seven-year-old Adam Sandroni Jr. took a big swig from his soft drink, his eyes sparkling and his excitement palpable to be attending his first NBA game of the season, especially one in which Zion Williamson was making his debut.
His eyes rarely drifting from the Smoothie King Center court before the game had even started between Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans and the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night, Sandroni smiled and said he now has a new favorite player.
“LeBron James was my favorite player,” he said while his dad, Adam Sandroni, laughed. “Now Zion is my favorite player in the whole world.”
And then Williamson went out and played like a 19-year-old man possessed in the fourth quarter, knocking down four three-pointers in about a three-minute span, scoring 17 straight points over that stretch, igniting his team and causing a roar from the fans inside the buzzing arena.
But for all the electricity Williamson generated with his 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists, and his otherworldly fourth quarter, the Pelicans dropped a 121-117 game to the Spurs that left the rookie unhappy with that result.
“It was good to get back out there, obviously,” Williamson said. “But it didn’t have the outcome that I wanted. So got to be better and move on to the next.”
With 5 minutes 23 seconds left and during a timeout, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry pulled Williamson to the side, patted him on the chest a few times, both of them knowing that was the end of his night.
“I just said, ‘Hey, man, I got to take you out,’” Gentry said. “I checked with the medical people and they said, ‘Hey, he’s got to come out.’ I said, ‘I ain’t taking him out yet. I’m playing him two more minutes.’ Then he made three threes.
“He said, ‘Coach, I can win this game.’ I said, ‘I know, but I got to take you out.’ He was just saying it from the standpoint that he wanted to win for the team.”
Williamson had played 18:18, including 6:37 in the fourth.
He had been told during his rehab for a torn meniscus in his right knee that kept him out three months that his minutes would be low because it was best for his future.
As he sat on the bench, the fans chanted, “We want Zion! We want Zion! We want Zion!”
But he didn’t return.
“It was very hard,” Williamson said. “I’m 19. Honestly, in that moment, I’m not thinking about longevity. I’m thinking about winning so it was very tough.”
Williamson had also heard chants of “MVP, MVP, MVP” when he stepped to the free-throw line in the fourth.
“I’m not going to lie. That was different,” Williamson said. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten it to that magnitude. But I was just locked in on the game and just trying to help my team win, so I was just trying to lock in.”
Clearly, Williamson was locked in in the fourth.
He didn’t miss any of those four three-point shots he took.
“I’ll just say when you’re not able to move around, do athletic movements for a while and the only thing you can do is just shoot spot-up jumpers, I guess that was a result of that,” he said.
Even the way the Sandronis got to see Williamson play his first game was classic in how it transpired.
Dad’s company has season tickets and he was “lucky” to secure two a few weeks ago.
“I got these tickets way before I knew Zion was coming back,” Sandroni said. “Everybody was wondering the last few days, ‘Whose got those tickets?’”