'Seismic': Zion Williamson makes NBA debut amid much fanfare
Las Vegas — Zion Williamson made the rim shake, which is what fans wanted.
And then the scoreboard started to shake, which nobody wanted.
It was a night unlike any other in NBA Summer League history — with a frenzied crowd at the start, disappointment when Williamson’s night was cut short by a knee issue and then confusion when the game was halted by an earthquake.
Such was how the newest No. 1 pick began his professional career Friday night, when his New Orleans Pelicans beat the New York Knicks 80-74 in a game that was cut short by 7 minutes, 53 seconds because of an earthquake that struck 150 miles from Los Angeles and was felt in Las Vegas. No one will remember the outcome, not on this night.
“Seismic,” is how Summer League executive director Warren LeGarie described it all.
Williamson left without comment, and left earlier than fans wanted. The Pelicans said he took some contact to his left knee and wouldn’t play in the second half, after he scored 11 points in his first nine summer minutes.
It’s unclear if those will be his last summer minutes — the early indication was that the injury was not serious, but it’s also unknown if the Pelicans will be willing to take any risks with him going forward.
“He’s a monster, man,” New Orleans’ Frank Jackson said. “He does it all. He’s so big and so physical, it’s hard to stay in front of him. He’s just so powerful. Everything he does is going be explosive. … We haven’t even seen the best of what he can do.”
Williamson didn’t keep his adoring new public waiting for his display of dunks and power. With tickets commanding more than $500 on the resale markets throughout the day from those desperate to be part of the crowd — one that included LeBron James and Floyd Mayweather — Williamson had moments where he was putting on a show.
Pelicans-Knicks may have been the hottest ticket in Vegas on a night when Reba McEntire and Brooks and Dunn were doing their thing at Caesars Palace, Gwen Stefani was at Planet Hollywood and Wiz Khalifa was playing a late show at a nightclub. And Williamson didn’t disappoint in those nine minutes.
“Obviously, the guy we drafted put a buzz in the air for everybody in here,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said.
That he did.
It would be inaccurate to say the whole NBA was watching. It only seemed that way.
James was in a baseline seat, a few spots to the right of San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan. Mayweather arrived a few minutes before game time. Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks was there and so was Lonzo Ball — James’ teammate with the Lakers, until the trade that sends him to New Orleans as part of the Anthony Davis swap happens on Saturday. Davis arrived in the middle of the first quarter, sitting for a few minutes with James and agent Rich Paul, watching the Pelicans on what will be his last night as a Pelican.
James arrived for the Lakers-Bulls game that preceded the Pelicans-Knicks matchup, and gave his soon-to-be-former teammate Ball a big hug between games. It made sense that he was there for the Lakers. And it was no surprise that he stayed to see Williamson.
“I’ve never met him,” James said.
Asked if he’d be willing to offer Williamson counsel, since he might be one of the few people in NBA history to enter the pro ranks amid such fanfare, James said he’d happily offer whatever he could.
“My line is open,” said James, the No. 1 pick 16 years earlier.
The Pelicans tried a lob to Williamson on the first play after the tap, and he got cheered for getting fouled. Then again, he also got cheered for coming onto the floor for warmups, for dunks in the layup line and when his name got introduced as the fifth and final starter for the Pelicans in the pregame introductions. They even cheered when he would get off the bench to go back into the game.
“We’re not going to do anything crazy with him,” Gentry said. “This gives you an opportunity to test out the speed of the game and things like that. That’s really all you learn from this.”
There had been two sellouts in NBA Summer League history in Vegas before Friday.
And now, there have been three. (Saturday would be a fourth, but NBA officials were huddling late Friday night to figure out if the day can go on as scheduled.)
Summer League has gotten bigger and bigger each year, but The Zion Factor is very real — and a league that set an attendance record in Vegas last summer is well on its way already to smashing that mark this year.
“People want to be part of something big and special,” LeGarie said. “And Zion loves the game. My partner Albert Hall, the brains of this operation, he ran Adidas Nations and Zion was with him since he was 14 years old. He has a picture of Zion in a tub of ice because he’s overheating because he loved to play so much.”
And on Friday, at long last, he was in the NBA.
For nine minutes, Vegas had a new star.