Zion Williamson more than just 'decent' in Pelicans return

ByAndrew Lopez ESPN logo
Thursday, October 20, 2022

NEW YORK -- Despite praise from his teammates and coach, Zion Williamson called his regular-season return to the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night just a "decent starter performance."

"It's a lot of room for improvement," he said. "I'm still learning my teammates. Now we get real in-game reps. I'm just excited to grow."

The numbers suggested far more than just decent.He collected 25 points, nine rebounds and four steals in the 130-108 wire-to-wire Pelicans win over the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center.

It was an effort hailed by his own team -- and even the opposition.

Pelicans coach Willie Green said it was like Williamson "didn't miss a beat." Brandon Ingram said he simply "picked up where he left off."

And Nets forward Kevin Durant was among those not surprised.

"He looked healthy to me, he looked good," Durant said. "Got up 22 shots, nine rebounds, 25 points. At this point it's just typical for him."

Williamson said it was a "breath of fresh air" to get back on the floor after missing the 2021-22 regular season because of a broken foot. He said that during warm-ups he could tell he missed the allure of being in an away arena and noted that when the starting lineups were announced it was another moment when he finally felt like things were returning to normal.

Williamson was 11-of-22 from the field, with all 11 of his baskets coming from inside the paint. In 86 career games, Williamson has had at least 20 points in the paint in 45 of those appearances, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Despite the time missed, the only player with more games with 20 or more points in the paint since the beginning of the 2019-20 season is Giannis Antetokounmpo (74).

It was the first time Williamson played with many of his new Pelicans teammates after not playing in a regular-season game since May 4, 2021. In fact, of the players who saw action against the Nets, only Ingram and Naji Marshall had played in a regular-season game with Williamson before.

And because of minor injuries to Williamson, Ingram and McCollum, the Pelicans never got to see their starting five in the preseason.

"This is probably the first time we played together for more than 20 minutes, including practices," McCollum said. "So it was nice to see us gel, It was nice to see us find shots and rhythm."

Ingram had a team-high 28 points with seven rebounds and five assists. McCollum had 21 points and six of the Pelicans' 31 assists.

Green has always emphasized ball movement, but with three players who can dominate the box score the way Williamson, Ingram and McCollum do, he's stressed it even more this season. According to Williamson, it helps that all three players have the same goal in mind.

"I said it before in interviews and I wasn't just saying it because it sounded good, I said it because I meant it," he said. "All three of us run unselfish and we all have the same goal, and that's to win. And when you want to win, you put aside personal goals or personal things. Whatever I got to do, whatever they got to do to win, that's what we all going to do."

Ingram said the game was a "good start" for the three and believes it will be easier for them on the offensive end moving forward.

"When you have smart players and talent out there, it's easier to go out there and just play the game," he said. "It was good to see a lot of one-on-ones that they couldn't be in a lot of help on the defensive end where we had shooters and we had different guys that can make players on the basketball floor."

Despite the scoring effort, Williamson did admit he was still knocking off a bit of rust.

"Yeah, there are some shots where I'm like, 'Well that's good' and when it rolls out I'm like, 'No way.' But my teammates are there for me," Williamson said. "They just tell me to stay aggressive, keep attacking and just be myself. So I mean, they're in my corner so my confidence is going to stay high."

There was a little bit more rust on the other bench Wednesday as Ben Simmons made his regular-season Nets debut after not playing last season for Philadelphia or Brooklyn. He played 23 minutes against the Pelicans and finished with four points, five rebounds and five assists while fouling out of the game.

"I just think he's rusty," Brooklyn coach Steve Nash said. "The guy hasn't played in over a year. He's still getting used to referees, defense, offense. This is a process for Ben. I've said it a lot, you guys have heard me say it. He's shown obvious glimpses of the player we know he is and can be, but it's not easy. We're here to support him, we're here to coach him up and try to get him to a place where he can play at the level he's played at in the past."

Added Simmons: "So much going on -- I think I was just too excited, honestly. But it was just great to be out there. As a first game obviously you want to win but we know the reasons we lost. It was multiple reasons we lost and those are things we can fix. We know that's not us as a team. I think there's a lot of jitters out there early on, but it was good to get that one out of the way."

ESPN's Nick Friedell contributed to this story.

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