NEW YORK — Despite praise from his teammates and coach, Zion Williamson described his regular-season return to the New Orleans Pelicans as just a “decent starter performance” Wednesday night.
“There is a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “I’m still learning my teammates. Now we get real replays in the game. I’m just looking forward to growing.”
The numbers suggested far more than just decent. He accumulated 25 points, nine rebounds and four steals in the Pelicans’ 130-108 wire-to-wire win over the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center.
It was a feat celebrated by his own team – and even the opposition.
Pelicans coach Willie Green said it was like Williamson “didn’t miss a beat.” Brandon Ingram said he just “picked up where he left off”.
And Nets forward Kevin Durant was among those who weren’t surprised.
“He looked healthy to me, he looked good,” Durant said. “Got 22 shots, nine rebounds, 25 points. It’s just typical of him at this point.”
Williamson said it was a “breath of fresh air” to get back on the ground after missing the 2021-22 regular season with a broken foot. He said that during the warm-up he realized he missed the thrill of being in an away arena, noting that it was another moment when the starting rosters were announced that he finally felt the things back to normal.
Williamson was 11 of 22 from the field with all 11 of his baskets coming from inside the paint. In 86 career games, Williamson had at least 20 points in the paint in 45 of those appearances, according to an ESPN Stats & Information investigation. Despite the missed time, Giannis Antetokounmpo (74) is the only player with more games with 20 or more points in the color since the start of the 2019/20 season.
It was Williamson’s first time playing with many of his new Pelicans teammates after not playing in the regular season since May 4, 2021. In fact, of the players active against the Nets, only Ingram and Naji Marshall had previously played a regular-season game with Williamson.
And because of minor injuries to Williamson, Ingram and McCollum, the Pelicans never got to see their starting five in the preseason.
“This is probably the first time we’ve played together for more than 20 minutes, including practice,” McCollum said. “So it was nice to see us gelling. It was nice to see us finding shots and rhythm.”
Ingram had a team-high 28 points with seven rebounds and five assists. McCollum had 21 points and six of the Pelicans’ 31 assists.
Green has always emphasized ball movement, but with three players who can dominate box score the way Williamson, Ingram and McCollum do, he’s emphasized that even more this season. According to Williamson, it helps that all three players have the same goal in mind.
“I’ve said it in interviews before, and I didn’t just say it because it sounded good, I said it because I meant it,” he said. “All three of us are running unselfishly and we all have the same goal and that is to win. And if you want to win, you put personal goals or personal things aside. Whatever I have to do, whatever they have to do to win, we’ll all do it.”
Ingram said the game was a “great start” for the three and believes it will be easier for them to move forward on offense.
“When you have smart players and talent out there, it’s easier to go out there and just play the game,” he said. “It was good to see a lot of one-on-one teams that they couldn’t help much on the defensive end where we had shooters and we had different guys that can make players on the basketball floor.”
Despite the efforts made, Williamson admitted he was still tapping out a bit of rust.
“Yeah, there are some recordings where I’m like, ‘Well, that’s good,’ and when it comes out I’m like, ‘No way.’ But my teammates are there for me,” Williamson said. “They’re just telling me to stay aggressive, keep attacking and just be myself. So I mean, they’re in my corner, so my confidence will stay high.”
There was a bit more rust on the other bench on Wednesday when Ben Simmons made his regular-season debut with the Nets after not playing for Philadelphia or Brooklyn last season. He played 23 minutes against the Pelicans and finished the game with four points, five rebounds and five assists while fouling the game.
“I just think he’s rusty,” said Brooklyn coach Steve Nash. “The guy hasn’t played in over a year. He’s still getting used to refereeing, defending, attacking. It’s a process for Ben. I’ve said it many times, you heard me say it. He has obvious insight shown of the player we know he is and can be but it’s not easy, we’re here to support him, we’re here to coach him and try to put him somewhere where he can play at the level he has played at in the past.”
Simmons added: “So much going on – I think I was just too excited, to be honest. But it was just great to be out there. As a first game you obviously want to win, but we know the reasons we lost reasons we lost and those are things we can fix. We know it’s not us as a team. I think there’s a lot of nervousness early on, but it was good to get that out of the way.
ESPN’s Nick Friedell contributed to this story.
https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/34836423/zion-williamson-more-just-decent-pelicans-return Zion Williamson more than just ‘decent’ in Pelicans return