The Zion Williamson era is finally set to begin in New Orleans.
Williamson, the most anticipated N.B.A. prospect since LeBron James, is expected to make his rookie debut at home for the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 22, David Griffin, the teams executive vice president of basketball operations, said on Wednesday. The Pelicans will face the Spurs that night.
Griffin told reporters that Williamsons first game would depend on his performance in an intense practice in the coming days and official clearance by doctors.
This process has been one that has been really, really good. Weve learned a lot more than weve probably taught him, frankly, Griffin said. Hes getting to the point where we actually believe that hes as ready as he believes he is.
There had been much speculation about when Williamson would play or if he would be able to take the court at all this season. He had surgery in October to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, and the Pelicans initially estimated it would be six to eight weeks till he returned, which would have been in early December. No setbacks were announced.
On Wednesday, Griffin expressed exasperation at the speculation and said the team had never considered sitting Williamson for the whole season.
Its frustrating only from the standpoint of trust with the player and with our family here internally, Griffin said. Those decisions werent even reached until this morning.
Griffin said that Williamson likely would not play games on consecutive nights, but he would not be limited in how many minutes he could play. His playing time will be determined based on how he looks on the court, Griffin said.
The expectations for the 19-year-old former Duke University phenom have been sky-high since he was in middle school. Williamson already had begun to make good on the lofty hopes during the preseason, when he averaged 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 71.4 percent from the field in four games.
At 15-26, the Pelicans are the second-worst team in the Western Conference after several rotation players in addition to Williamson missed extended time with injuries. At one point, the Pelicans had lost 13 games in a row, four of them by fewer than 5 points and two in overtime. But they have come around of late, winning nine of their last 13 games.
The Pelicans have been kept afloat by the improvement of players like Brandon Ingram, who has emerged as a legitimate star, and Lonzo Ball. Ingram is averaging 25.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists, while Ball, after struggling to start the season, has increased his production to the tune of 17.3 points, 8.4 assists and 7.4 rebounds in seven January games.
If Williamson does indeed make his return against the Spurs, he will have just missed a matchup with the breakout rookie star of the season: Grizzlies guard Ja Morant.
Memphis, which will face New Orleans on Monday, has been the most surprising team of the season. The Grizzlies are competing for a playoff spot when they were expected to be in contention for one of the high lottery picks reserved for the leagues worst teams. Morant, a 20-year-old who was picked No. 2 overall in Junes draft, right behind Williamson, has become one of the N.B.A.s must-see stars.
To the surprise of many, it is Morant, not Williamson, who has cemented himself as the front-runner in the Rookie of the Year race before the midpoint of the season. Morant has been impressive, even against superstar veterans like Rockets guard James Harden and Lakers forward LeBron James. Earlier this season, Morant told The New York Times that he welcomed the challenge.
Its my job now to play against the best, so I know Im going to see the best, Morant said. Obviously, you grow up watching them and now youre playing against them, and its kind of like a wow moment. But Ive still got to take care of business.
But Williamson, and the Pelicans, still have a chance to make their mark on the year. An unusually fluid playoff race in the conference means the eighth seed is still within reach for New Orleans, making Williamsons addition to the lineup now even more critical. Entering Wednesday nights games, the Pelicans were four games back of a postseason berth with half the season remaining. Nine of New Orleanss next 10 games are against prospective playoff teams, including Milwaukee, Boston, Utah and Denver.