ATLANTA — There was no need for delayed gratification. Not even two minutes into the first quarter of the Pelicans‘ preseason debut against the Hawks, Zion Williamson soared to the basket to deliver his first dunk against an NBA team.
Williamson didn’t even need two hands.
Even the Hawks’ boisterous “Sixth Man Section” couldn’t stifle gasps as Williamson, the most highly anticipated rookie in recent memory, rammed the ball through the hoop in the Pelicans’ 133-109 win. Williamson rose to dunk celebrity during his lone season at Duke University, but on Monday night he proved to be more than a walking dunk-machine.
“I don’t think dunking would have just gotten me here,” Williamson said after the game. “Had to be like somewhat of a good basketball player to get here.”
His first points came on a drive to the basket, where he was fouled. He sank a free throw en route to scoring the Pelicans’ first five points of the game. He finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 28 minutes of playing time.
Williamson’s first quarter slam wasn’t his only dunk of the night. In fact, it wasn’t his only dunk of the quarter. He delivered two more.
“I saw the lane open up,” Williamson said of his first dunk. “This isn’t high school or college anymore, you gotta go up strong, so I went up strong and was able to finish.”
The Pelicans’ front office and coaching staff have done their best to quiet the hype surrounding Williamson. During his draft night news conference, President of Basketball Operations David Griffin told reporters that giving Williamson room to be a teenager was imperative. Jrue Holiday, he said, was the face of the franchise. Coach Alvin Gentry doubled down on that sentiment at Monday morning’s shoot around, dismissing any comparisons to Lakers’ star LeBron James.
“I’m not comparing a 19-year-old to that right now,” Gentry told ESPN. “I’m going to protect him, because we’re not drinking that Kool-Aid. We’re not going to say that he’s LeBron James or any of those guys. Hard to take a 19-year-old kid and say this is what you are going to be until he experiences all those things. We are just making sure we’re not putting extra pressure on him.”
Still, fans holding “We love you, Zion” signs, lined the tunnel leading to the Pelicans’ locker room. When Williamson stopped and signed a young girl’s jersey, she burst into tears. Clearly, Williamson hasn’t been received as just-another-rookie by basketball fans.
It wasn’t a flawless debut. He missed both of his 3-point attempts. A missed free throw prompted heckling fans to chant, “You can’t shoot” — a poke at his less-than-consistent distance shooting percentages in college.
“He has work to do defensively,” Gentry said. “But that’s pretty much any young kid who comes into the league.”