NEW ORLEANS -- Everywhere you turn in New Orleans, someone is asking when rookie Zion Williamson will make his NBA debut. Things are becoming a bit clearer because the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft went through his first full practice since he had surgery on the meniscus in his right knee on Oct. 21.
New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry was in Walmart when a woman on a motorized scooter stopped him to ask about Williamson's return. Williamson himself said little kids are coming up asking him about getting back on the floor because they see him on the court in their video games.
"I'm like, 'I'm not ready man, I'm not ready,'" Williamson said. "They'll look at me and beg me to come back, and it sucks to look at them and go, 'Not yet, lil' man.'"
Going through a full practice is a milestone Williamson has been itching to hit.
"If it was up to me, I would've been out there two weeks ago or something," Williamson said. "It was just good to get back out there."
Gentry said that while Williamson was a full participant on Thursday, it was still a light practice by their standards. The Pelicans are set to travel to the West Coast on Thursday afternoon for a Friday game against the Los Angeles Lakers and a Saturday contest against the Sacramento Kings.
When asked if Williamson could play on the upcoming road trip, Gentry said, "No. That won't happen. I'm pretty sure of that one."
Gentry added that the team does not have a date in mind for when Williamson will play in a game, but it is monitoring his progress in practice to see when the best time for that will be.
"I know that's typical, but we really do have to take it a day at a time to see what kind of progress he makes," Gentry said. "See what happens after he goes through practices and things like that. Like we said and will continue to say, he'll play when the time is right for him to do that. When that is, I'm not real sure of. But I know he's making progress, that's the thing that matters most."
When asked if he had a date in mind for a debut, Williamson said he wasn't quite sure about that either. He said it'd be like his college decision when he went to Duke: "I just wake up and I know."
He said at that point he'd go to Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin, general manager Trajan Langdon, the coaching staff and the trainers to let them know he felt ready. But he knows there are concrete steps he has to take in order to play.
"I gotta pass the assessments," Williamson said. "Once I pass those, Griff will let me go."
Griffin has said in the past that the team has certain benchmarks that Williamson must clear in order to take the floor.
Williamson isn't sure exactly when he injured the knee. After the Pelicans' fourth preseason game, he had the team look at it, and an MRI confirmed the meniscus tear.
Williamson was initially expected to be out for six to eight weeks, but that has stretched into January. During his absence, the team wanted to focus on the kinetic chain in his body, which would require some tweaking of how Williamson walks and runs. He said it was similar to the process he underwent at Duke when he injured his right knee after blowing out the bottom of his shoe.
"It's been a different process," Williamson said of his recovery. "Just working on mobility and strength in areas that I don't really use my strength and balance."
The Pelicans are riding a four-game win streak into their game against the Lakers on Friday night. After a 6-22 start to the season, New Orleans has won five of six games and is somehow just four games back of the final spot in the Western Conference playoff race.
Gentry has started to settle in on his rotations after injuries had the Pelicans scrambling for most of the first two months of the season.
Soon, he'll have another piece to integrate into the offense, but he doesn't see much problem with adding Williamson.
"It'll be a good process," Gentry said with a laugh. "It'll be good to try and figure that one out. I don't see a negative in that in any kind of way."
At practice on Thursday, Williamson was seen catching up with Pelicans assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik. And at games last month, he slid down the bench to give the coaching staff his input.
He averaged 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds during the preseason, and the Pelicans believe he'll make an immediate impact once he returns.
"I think you'd just have to go back to preseason and see what he was doing in those situations," Gentry said. "He's a very good passer. He can get you into the bonus because of the physicality that he plays with. Those are some of the things that you see. We'll have to look at things again and obviously we had some things that were specific to him we'll have to put back in. That'll happen when the times come.
"Our concentration is on the guys we have right now, and we're playing pretty good basketball. How do we maintain that, and how do we improve."
For Williamson, he sees a team coming together at the right time.
"I think that's the process of a great team," Williamson said. "You're not going to be great immediately. The rare ones probably are. But for this team, it's like riding a bike. Once you got the hang of it and everybody got used to each other, we're coasting now."