As the NBA regular-season debut for Zion Williamson draws near, the New Orleans Pelicans now have a targeted date in mind.
Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said Wednesday that the team anticipates Williamson will make his debut at home on Jan. 22 against the San Antonio Spurs.
“This process has been one that has been really, really good,” Griffin said. “We’ve learned a lot about him. We’re getting the point where we think he is as ready as he thinks he is. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Griffin said getting Williamson work on the practice court with the team has been challenging. The Pelicans play Thursday and Saturday at home, against the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers respectively, and will travel to play the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday. The team is hopeful he will go through a more intense practice on Friday and Sunday before making his debut.
That debut, Griffin added, was something the team never thought about pushing into next season.
“And he never considered it either,” Griffin said. “The nature of his injury wasn’t such that that was called for. Other players that have had to make that determination, they had a much more significant surgery.
“Blake Griffin fractured a kneecap. That’s a different issue. Zion knew from the very beginning that he was going to be able to play, and he wanted to play. We told you he hasn’t been overly happy with me that he hasn’t been able to play yet. There was never a thought that he wouldn’t be able to play.”
Williamson first returned to full practices on Jan. 2 and first participated in 5-on-5 drills on Jan. 7, but the Pelicans — who just finished stretch of seven games in 11 days with a pair of back-to-backs — simply didn’t have enough down time to get more practices in.
They just had three games in four days on a recent road trip and returned to New Orleans on Tuesday, when Williamson went to the practice facility to get in extra work before joining the team for a full practice on Wednesday.
“Yesterday, the work Zion did was as good as I’ve seen to this point — better than he was in the preseason,” Griffin said. “We feel like he will be a bigger, better version of himself. A healthier version of himself going forward. But the timing of this has been difficult.”
Griffin also added he believes having a target date set will help to alleviate some of the pressure surrounding Williamson in recent weeks.
“While he would have liked to have played already, he was very grateful we were going to put a target on it because I don’t think he gets asked anything by anybody anymore other than ‘When are you going to play?'” Griffin said. “I think just ending that is probably a blessing. But we’re close enough now to see what it’s going to look like and to sort of theoretically land on this day will look like this, the next day will look like that.”
Williamson underwent surgery on the meniscus in his right knee on Oct. 21; the original timetable for the injury was six to eight weeks. His anticipated return date of Jan. 22 would be a little more than 13 weeks from the surgery.
While there has been some frustration of Williamson not setting foot on the court, Griffin said there was a long-term plan in place and the team didn’t want to rush anything.
“My job is to put him in the best position to succeed,” Griffin said. “I get the frustration of it. I also hope we’d have a trust level right now that says, you know we’re going to do the right thing for the kid long term and that’s what we made the determination to do.”
Williamson did play in four preseason games in October and averaged 23.3 points while shooting 71.4 percent from the floor in those games. His final preseason game was actually against the Spurs — the same team he’s set to come back against.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said the team obviously has some Williamson-focused lineups in mind, but also added that regular-season NBA and preseason NBA are two different things.
“It’s something obviously that we’ve thought about and looked at and experimented some in the preseason, but this is really completely different than the preseason,” Gentry said. “It’s a tough situation. I’m sure he’ll handle it. I’m sure he’ll be very good at it. But it will be an adjustment period.”
While the team obviously focused on the knee injury itself, they did take time to fix other things as well.
“You’re addressing everything,” Griffin said. “You’re addressing ankle flexion, and knees and hips and backs and everything else. I think what’s happened is his whole kinetic chain is in a whole better position now because of this.
“It starts with being more flexible. Once you make somebody more flexible, you have to give them the strength to control that flexibility. That’s been a dance, it really has been. But he’s been able to do some things physically that he wasn’t able to do before.”
When Williamson does get back on the court, Griffin said the team won’t do a “hard minutes restriction” but will judge each night on how he’s playing.
The Pelicans also don’t have any back-to-backs until March 3-4, so Griffin added that while the team probably will sit Williamson in those games, it’s possible any restrictions could be lifted by then.
Initially, Griffin and the Pelicans said Williamson had to pass a set of preseason assessment tests in order to be cleared for action. On the objective measure side of things, Williamson is testing better. But with some of the more subjective tests, he’s just almost there.
“If we’ve taken this much time,” Griffin said. “We want him to look right when we let him go.”