Ashley Landis / Associated Press
After 15 minutes of action on the night the NBA returned from its hiatus, Zion Williamson is at 580 on the sick of the season. Eleven members of the New Orleans Pelicans spent more time on the ground.
And yet, their season is about the man who wore “Peace” on the back of his jersey on Thursday evening.
In those 580 minutes that Zion played, New Orleans is a plus-104 (it was actually minus-16 in the 106-104 loss to the Utah Jazz). In the 2,570 minutes Zion has not played yet, the Pelicans are missing-159.
In stark contrast to the important message he chose to display on his number, Zion’s game she is nothing but peaceful. He plays with the force that few players in league history can generate, and the attention he gives opens things up for his team.
This makes a restriction of minutes in the run of eight games in the postseason far more than a nuisance.
Following his departure from the “bubble,” which put Zion in quarantine protocol through Wednesday, ESPN’s Malika Andrews tweeted shortly before tipoffing that the 20-year-old rookie is going “play in a short burst ”during reopening.
After the loss, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry revealed there was more to it than that.
“We wish we could have Zion down,” Gentry, Andrew Lopez told ESPN. “But he had used the minutes we were given. That’s the way it was. We’re not going to keep knocking back there. Our medical team said they played with us to play.”
This explanation does little more than lead to additional questions.
Is there an injury we don’t know about? Is this just a conditioning problem? Wasn’t the team in Zion’s digital ear about hiatus conditioning? How or why did the rest time lead to steps back in his timeline?
Perhaps most importantly: Why not save a few of those 15 minutes to the end of the game?
If there is a tough, fast-paced rule that limits Zion to 15 minutes, New Orleans coaching staff should spread out what includes the potential for a time of crisis.
If the Pelicans want to make the playoffs, each of these games is immensely important. They need to be in ninth place (at worst) and within four games of the eighth seed to force the play-in situation.
The four-part game of that equation is not a big deal. Even after Thursday’s loss, they are just four back from the Memphis Grizzlies with the league’s easiest remaining schedule. The problem is that there are now two teams between New Orleans and Memphis, one of which has Damian Lillard and a place at the strong end. Oh, and the San Antonio Spurs now have fewer losses.
The battle for the ninth will come down to the wire, like Thursday night’s game. The Pelicans needed Zion then, and they needed it to move forward.
Ashley Landis / Associated Press
New Orleans may have been scanned in the minutes he played against Utah, but he was the player who left the most teams this season. He must be out there in the big moments.
In his limited action Thursday, he showed near no rust coming out of quarantine.
He went 6-of-8 from the field and made his only free-throw attempt. In his first bucket, he essentially went through a typically powerful Royce O’Neale on his way to a finish off in traffic and close to full speed. He scored on a traditional move on Georges Niang. He later punished the same defender for giving him 15 feet from the edge by turning a soul into an alley.
He even showed a little flair with a dime behind his back to the villain who is usually found set up with him:
Bleaching Report @Report on Sport
ZION SHOULD NOT BE BACK. https://t.co/250L1OvQRA
All the physical tools were in a lively display, but the intangible aspects of his game are even more important. Williamson feels the game looks like a veteran. He knows when to attack and when to defer. His anticipation and exploitation of cutting and driving angles can be as instrumental as his athleticism in generating open appearances.
There’s still growth on the road for Zion, particularly on the defensive edge, but he’s more than willing to make a positive impact on the playoff team. If he is held to this restriction of minutes for longer (or if he is managed as he was on Thursday), he may not have a chance to do so.
When Zion put it out for the last time with 7:19 remaining in the fourth quarter, New Orleans was 93-89 (giving it a 73.7 percent chance of winning). For the rest of the game, Utah center Rudy Gobert had four points, including the game’s winning free-throws, and four rebounds. New Orleans big men together for zero points and two rebounds in that stretch.
Regardless of whether the Pelicans can recommend Zion’s minutes quickly, they can’t let themselves be put back in this position.
This season is about the rookie with superstar potential on the ground and a desire for peace outside of it. And this is especially true for each of the next seven games.