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New Orleans Pelicans oral history: 2019 No. 1 pick Zion Williamson’s debut

Through the words of his head coach and teammates

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Each franchise has a moment in its history where the energy, perception and culture changed entirely with one thing alone but few to the magnitude of New Orleans and Zion Williamson.

Williamson’s first official NBA game on January 22, 2020 against the San Antonio Spurs will be remembered in New Orleans sports history forever. It featured a stretch that compares to nothing we’ve ever witnessed in a rookie debut: 22 points while shooting a perfect 4-of-4 from three-point range along with seven boards and three assists in just 18 minutes. 17-straight points in the fourth quarter, 188 seconds.

Relived by his head coach and teammates, here were the thoughts around this Pelicans team on the night the Crescent City and Williamson took their first dance of many more to follow.

Alvin Gentry: What you saw is a taste of what you’ll see once we really get settled in and he gets settled in. You can see that there’s a lot of things we can do with him and a lot of potential there. It was good to see him do that. I think there’s a really high ceiling that he can reach.

He found out that everybody makes mistakes, and he just continued to play through them. I think for him it’s just the relief of having one game under his belt. Now all of this goes away. The first game, first game, first game. Now he can just play and get himself in a place where he can continue to learn and grow.

Nicolo Melli: We were just happy. For him and for us. He has so many qualities as a person and as a player, so he fits in wherever he wants.

Josh Hart: He wasn’t going a hundred miles per hour trying to get that first bucket, trying to get that monkey off his back. He made the right plays. I think that’s the biggest thing. Especially for someone his age – where he has so many eyes on him, so much pressure on him – it’s easy to conform and try to just, whether we win or lose, have your debut be successful. But he went out there, made the right plays, played well defensively and rebounded the ball so I think it was a great job.

Jaxson Hayes: It was all about just getting back in that rhythm because he hasn’t played in so long. I feel like today was a good debut for him. […] I’m so excited. I was really happy for him.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker: As soon as the coaches came back and gave us that lineup [Williamson, Hayes and Alexander-Walker], I was giddy in a sense of this was what we had talked about. Now it’s all coming to life. Anytime you get to talk about a dream or goal you have and it happens, it’s just a surreal moment.

It’s like ‘go get yours’ you know what I’m saying? When you see people that are close to you do well, it makes you happy because everyone is finding their way. Enjoying the hard work and all of the tough times makes those moments worth it. What more could you ask for?

Derrick Favors: Everybody was excited and happy. He hit some big shots that brought us back into the game, and he played great. He can definitely help. Another big body in there that’s going to help us out a lot offensively. Just the way that he plays is going to help us especially pushing the ball off rebounds and on the fast breaks.

I just tell him to have fun. I know he’s got a lot of pressure and a lot of hype around him. I say go out there and make shots, miss shots, turn the ball over, make mistakes and it’s okay. Just have fun; it’s still a game.

Lonzo Ball: I think the energy was there from warmups. That’s the most people I’ve seen coming out before the game even started. They were ready to go tonight.

He told me before the game he was going to ease his way into it. I told him to get a feel for it and go from there. In the fourth, I think he was comfortable. They were sagging off of him so he was just taking his shots.

Brandon Ingram: He did a good job of asserting himself. When he was open, he had the confidence to pull the threes. Him getting to the basket, causing so much attention, making the right passes. It was a good start for him.

I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet. He had some explosive rebounds, explosive to the rim a little bit, but as he gets comfortable he’ll be even better.

Jrue Holiday: His first official NBA game is against a pretty good team. Honestly, I think the way he came out was very poised. The way he played around us, bringing energy especially down the stretch, was something I guess you don’t really see from somebody so young. Even on top of that, we’re almost in February and he hadn’t played a game yet. For him to be able to come out here and do that in his first game is pretty elite.

The energy was crazy, but we’ve seen him do this since high school. This is what he does. As exciting as it was, is it really that much of a surprise?

Zion Williamson: It was nice to experience those emotions. I was happy to be out there and be able to run out there again. What was going through my mind was just be calm.

It was everything I dreamed of – except for the losing part. Just the energy the crowd brought, the energy the city brought. It was electric. I’m just grateful that they did that. It was a dream come true to finally get out there, but at the end of the day I did want to win. I just have to look to the next game.