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New Orleans Pelicans anticipate healthier, better version of Zion Williamson to debut against San Antonio next week

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Zion put up 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game on 71.4% shooting in four preseason showings

New Orleans Pelicans v Detroit Pistons Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

On Oct. 22, the New Orleans Pelicans opened the 2019 NBA season without its No. 1 overall pick. Now, three months later, the athletic anomaly is finally set to make his return — arguably the most awaited debut in league history.

Following practice on Wednesday afternoon, Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said the targeted date for Zion Williamson to play his first regular-season game with the Pelicans is Jan. 22 at home versus the San Antonio Spurs.

“Based on today’s practice, which was not terribly intense because we’re still somewhat of the walking wounded, we’re going to continue to try to get [Williamson] some reps in practice,” Griffin said. “We hope to have a slightly more intense practice on either the 17th or 19th. If all goes well from that, and assuming is he is cleared by then which he is not quite yet, our anticipation is he’ll play his first game on the 22nd at home against San Antonio.”

Griffin admits the Pelicans have learned a lot more from this process than Williamson has been taught, and the organization is finally starting to believe their new franchise star is as ready as he’s communicated to this point. False rumors started to circle that the former Duke standout could play earlier than next week, so New Orleans addressed the situation Wednesday morning between Griffin, the medical team and Williamson when the group arrived at a place where they felt they could evaluate progress.

Williamson made it clear on several occasions his desire has been to get back on the court sooner. Even so, the focus of the Pelicans organization has been on the longevity of an athlete the likes of which we’ve never witnessed before versus rushing him, or allowing him to rush himself, in any sense of the word. The initial timeline set for Williamson to return from the torn right meniscus suffered in October was 6-8 weeks while the new Jan. 22 target stretches his rehabilitation to 13-plus weeks.

“My job isn’t to stick to the initial timeline, it’s to put [Williamson] in the best position to succeed,” Griffin added. “I get the frustration of it. I’d also hope we have a trust level right now that says we’re going to do the right thing for the kid long term. That’s what we made the determination to do.”

Once Williamson finally takes the court, the Pelicans will experience a massive ripple effect. Not only will they have to manage and evaluate his performance day-to-day, but it will be a telling period leading up to the trade deadline. New Orleans hasn’t truly been able to get a feel for what they have on the roster with so many injuries – 17 different starting lineups alone – as well as this team being mostly built around Williamson’s potential.

The 6-foot-6 sensation will not receive a strict minutes restriction from the staff, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be seeing 30-plus minutes out of the gate. Williamson won’t be expected to play back-to-backs, and his playing time will be determined by his game shape. The Pelicans will continue to closely monitor how he handles an NBA load, but there is an interesting upside: he’s supposedly healthier and better than he was in preseason.

“Yesterday, the work Zion did was as good as I’ve seen to this point — better than he was in the preseason,” Griffin stated. “We feel like he will be a bigger, better version of himself. A healthier version of himself going forward.”

Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said one the biggest tasks will be finding the best four players to place around him. Rotations will take some time to figure out with this being similar to the shake up a midseason trade creates. But like most of the questions surrounding Williamson, we won’t have many real answers until his Jordan’s are laced and the ball is tossed with No. 1 on the floor.

“It’ll be great when he walks out onto the court to play,” Gentry said. “That’ll be the end of that. What happens after that is we can kinda get him up to speed, and we’ll go from there.”