NEW ORLEANS — For the first time since he made his NBA debut, New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson was on the floor when the final buzzer sounded inside the Smoothie King Center on Sunday night.
It was also the first time Williamson walked off the NBA court a winner in the regular season.
In his first two games, Williamson played the start of the fourth quarter but checked out midway through. In his debut, he had just finished a 17-consecutive-point outburst when he checked out at the 5:23 mark. On Friday against the Denver Nuggets, Williamson left the game for good with 6:52 to go.
But this time, he exited the game with 8:20 remaining but came back in at the 4:30 mark with the Pelicans up by 11. He helped the Pelicans close out the game by scoring the team’s last eight points.
“I was very anxious, but it was tough watching from the sideline in the fourth quarter in the last two games,” Williamson said. “But it was good to finally get out there, and it was good to get my first win.”
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said the medical staff felt fine about Williamson’s extended run as he played for 27 minutes and 15 seconds.
“I think he’s fine,” Gentry said. “There’s obviously a huge area of improvement that’s going to be made. You know, he’s played three NBA games now, and what he’s done he’s just done on raw talent really. He’ll get the feel of what we’re trying to do, and playing in a certain amount of space and how we can give him the ball and things like that. He’s going to be a welcome addition. He’s going to be a guy that we can finish the game with.”
Williamson was one of five Pelicans to finish with double-digit points. Point guard Lonzo Ball had a career-high 15 assists to help pace the New Orleans offense.
Eight of those assists came in the fourth quarter which, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, was the most Ball had ever had in a single quarter. Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram said Ball’s play was a big part of the victory.
“One thing that stands out is Lonzo,” Ingram said. “Lonzo, he’s been pretty big in running our offense and being the head guy to get everybody the basketball. Everybody’s been adjusting pretty well to it. It’s helping our defense and offense when he grabs the rebound, the basketball, pushes the basketball and flattens out the defense and finds the open pass.”
Ball hit double-digit assists for the 10th time this season and the eighth time in the past 14 games.
But of course, following the tragic news about the deaths of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna earlier in the day, basketball was far from the minds of all the Pelicans.
Gentry said the team should have been happier considering it lost to the Celtics by 35 on Jan. 11, but the joy was hard to come by.
“Everybody here is affected in some way. It’s just really tough,” Gentry said. “You would normally be very excited about a win like this. You know, you beat a really good basketball team and a team that beat you by 35 a week and a half ago. It’s just really not there to be honest with you guys. It’s just not there. I don’t know how you’re supposed to handle it. I mean the first thing I thought about when I walked through the doors is him and his daughter.”
Ball, who played two seasons in Los Angeles with the Lakers, said Bryant was an icon on and off the court.
“He is obviously one of the hardest workers in the game and one of the greatest the game has ever seen,” Ball said. “He is also a great father. I really just don’t know what to say. It was hard for me to play today. I am just glad we got the win.”
Ingram, who said he occupied Bryant’s former locker at Staples Center during his three seasons with the Lakers, said his brother told him about the news just as he was leaving his house to head to the arena.
“I mean I was shocked,” Ingram said. “Especially when one of our legends passes away like that. It’s always makes everybody wake up in the world and be more appreciative of things that we have around. He was a role model for me growing up, I think he was for a lot of people. Shooting a paper in the trash can you always say ‘Kobe’. The fadeaways on the basketball court you always say ‘Kobe’. He was a big inspiration for a lot of people growing up.”
Williamson said he had both a No. 8 and No. 24 Bryant jersey growing up and studied Bryant’s footwork.
Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday, a Los Angeles native, said he found out about Bryant’s death when he was getting to the arena.
“For me being from L.A. and growing up and watching him and being a Laker fan and growing up, just what he did for the culture of basketball for so many years,” Holiday said in describing Bryant’s impact. “Not only that, but for the world.
“It’s a sad day. I guess in my heart, Kobe would want us to beat the Celtics, so that was a good win.”