Williamson's surgery to fix the meniscus in his right knee happened on Oct. 21, the day before the Pelicans opened the 2019-20 season against the Toronto Raptors. The original timeline for Williamson was six to eight weeks, which would have put his return in early-to-mid December. However, the Pelicans took the heavily cautious route and have held him out until now, in a home matchup on Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Williamson made his presence felt in the NBA during the first minutes of summer league, when he ripped the ball away from Knicks forward Kevin Knox and slammed it home. In the preseason, he averaged 23.3 points on 71.4% shooting. All signs pointed to Williamson making an immediate impact on a Pelicans squad that was expected to compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
But this season hasn't gone how the franchise hoped. New Orleans sits at 17-27 and 12th place in the Western Conference, yet somehow still just 3.5 games behind the eighth and final spot in the postseason. The Pelicans started the season 7-23. The front office could have turned into early sellers, trying to get the best trade packages available for veterans Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick and Derrick Favors.
Then, in December, New Orleans finally got a healthy Favors to add to the lineup and made defensive changes. The Pelicans have turned things around, and adding Williamson to the mix should only help them further.
The Pelicans will have some restrictions on Williamson now that he's back on the court. On Jan. 7, head coach Alvin Gentry said Williamson will be on a minutes limit initially. He didn't know how long it would last or how many minutes a night Williamson would play. And don't expect to see Williamson in back-to-backs.
Still, it's hard to temper expectations for a top overall pick with this kind of hype. Williamson's No. 1 jersey dominates the landscape at any Pelicans game. He's the main attraction for fans in away arenas, even if he is just shooting pregame.
While it isn't going to be the entrance the young phenom envisioned months ago, the Zion Williamson show has finally arrived. -- Andrew Lopez
How Zion uses his go-to moves
How will Williamson score in the NBA? His ability to create his own offense will be the key to unlocking his superstar potential.
Here are his favorite moves with the ball and how they might work at the pro level.
1. In-and-out dribble
Zion puts opposing bigs on skates with hard in-and-out dribbles in either direction, while maintaining a low center of gravity before exploding to the rim. His ability to laterally shift his body weight so effortlessly leaves defenders wobbly, and Zion needs only the slightest crease to catapult all 285 pounds to the cup for a highlight slam or powerful finish.
Zion weaves coast to coast for hammer dunk
Zion drives past multiple defenders and throws down a massive one-handed dunk while drawing a foul.
2. Change-of-pace crossover
Williamson loves utilizing basic change-of-pace crossovers to dust opponents, and he's equally as effective going right or left. He sets up the move by slowing up and relaxing his body, sending the defender -- for a split second -- into chill mode. But right as the ball rests in his outside hand, he abruptly widens his stance, contracts his muscles and rips past his opponent's hip.
While known for his nuclear bounce, Zion's ability to contract and relax his muscles on a dime makes him one of the shiftiest big men the game has seen to date.
Zion rises for powerful jam
Zion Williamson rises from below the basket and finishes with a dunk.
3. Behind the back
If Williamson's straight-line drive or crossover is taken away, he regularly counters with a simple behind-the-back dribble to beat his man off the bounce.
While there's nothing flashy about the actual move, the fact that he maintains such a sturdy base when he changes direction, combined with his quickness and strength, makes it extremely difficult to defend.
4. Hop step
Zion's most lethal weapon is his hop step. Whether he's creating the shot himself or catching the ball with a head of steam, he's able to cover an incredible amount of ground with his signature hop, dodging help defenders before exploding off the hardwood for an electric finish.
5. Drop-step footwork
Zion was college basketball's most efficient and prolific paint scorer in large part because of his footwork in the post. His attack is simple, but the speed at which he utilizes basic drop-step footwork makes him really tough to guard on the block.
He sets the move up by shifting his body weight one way and slowing up, while wrapping his foot around the defender before quickly exploding into the move. When he doesn't have the strength advantage, he utilizes fakes to shake his defender, widening his stance to hard plant one foot and show the ball in that direction, maintaining balance and swinging around his other foot before violently going into his move. -- Mike Schmitz
The five biggest Zion games to watch
The Pelicans will be cautious with Williamson the rest of the season, so we aren't completely sure how many of the 38 remaining games he'll appear in. But these are the matchups we're highlighting.
1. New Orleans Pelicans vs. San Antonio Spurs
Jan. 22, 9:30 p.m. ET | ESPN
Here we go -- more than 40 games into the season, Williamson will appear in his debut NBA regular-season game. It's not a bad first matchup. The Spurs have the No. 23 defense in the NBA and they lack big, shutdown defenders ready to keep Zion in check.
2. New Orleans Pelicans vs. Boston Celtics
Jan. 26, 6 p.m. ET | ESPN
Williamson makes his ESPN Sunday debut against the Celtics and their deep crew of wings ready to try to slow him down.
3. New Orleans Pelicans vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Feb. 4, 7:30 ET | TNT
The rookie sensation gets his first matchup against the NBA's other standout athletic marvel -- reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
4. New Orleans Pelicans @ Los Angeles Lakers
Feb. 25, 10 ET | TNT
5. New Orleans Pelicans @ Dallas Mavericks
March 4, 8:30 p.m. ET
Luka Doncic and Williamson finished in the top two when ESPN experts were asked for the NBA rookies and sophomores with the most potential. This could be the first of many big matchups between the two young stars during their careers.
Can Zion help push the Pelicans into the playoffs?
Despite New Orleans' poor start and a record still 10 games below .500, the possibility of a postseason appearance is more realistic than it appears.
Monday's crucial win at Memphis moved the Pelicans within 3.5 games of the Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. And though New Orleans has to pass three other teams (San Antonio, Portland and Phoenix) and has the worst point differential (minus-3.2 PPG) of this group, there are reasons to think the Pelicans will be the best of the contenders over the season's final three months.
Start with the schedule. So far, New Orleans has played the most difficult competition in the NBA, according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI). Naturally, that flips the rest of the way, when the Pelicans will have the easiest schedule among West teams while the other West contenders play competition ranked among the 11 most difficult in the league.
Second, the Pelicans have been a different team with veteran center Favors in the lineup. Their slow start came with Favors playing just nine of the team's first 25 games because of injuries and the sudden death of his mother. New Orleans is 11-12 in the 23 games started by Favors, who has solidified the Pelicans' interior defense.
Thanks to those factors, New Orleans would have a reasonable shot at a playoff run even without Williamson in the lineup. Projections based on BPI show them climbing into eighth 12% of the time, better than Memphis (just 5%). Any contributions the Pelicans get from Williamson, who was dominant in the preseason before undergoing knee surgery, will only help that. FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR projections, which are based on player rather than team ratings, make New Orleans a heavy favorite as a playoff team in better than 60% of simulations.
Because other teams may upgrade at the deadline, and because Zion's minutes will likely be limited (RAPTOR projects him for 32 MPG at full strength, which is optimistic even before accounting for the reasonable possibility he sits out a game of back-to-backs), I'm not quite that bullish. I'd put the Pelicans' playoff chances somewhere in between, like 1-in-3. But that's still encouraging for a team that was considered out of the race after starting so poorly. -- Kevin Pelton