THE LINE WAS wrapped around the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. It was July 5, 2019, and the debut of Zion Williamson was here.
After waiting through the first three games, fans were eager to see the main event: Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans taking on the New York Knicks and his former Duke teammate, RJ Barrett.
It didn't take long for Williamson to show off exactly why people were so excited about his NBA potential.
With a little less than five minutes left in the first quarter, Pelicans guard Trevon Bluiett missed a floater in the lane. Knicks center Mitchell Robinson popped the ball into the air and into the waiting arms of teammate Kevin Knox. Bluiett flashed in front of Knox, forcing him to bring the ball backward as he was trying to protect it.
The only problem for Knox, however, was that Williamson was still there. As he saw the ball in Knox's arms, Williamson took his opportunity.
Williamson grabbed the ball away from Knox, who fell to the ground looking for a call that never came. Robinson turned back around but realized any block attempt was a futile one.
Williamson took one dribble, launched off two feet and slammed it home. He flexed with one arm as he backed away from the goal, much to the delight of the thousands in attendance.
Williamson played less than three minutes in the second quarter, and nine minutes total. The team announced at halftime that he had suffered a bruised left knee and would sit out for the remainder of summer league.
Before Williamson's teammates could close out their 80-74 lead, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake suspended play in the fourth quarter. The game never resumed.
In what has become a microcosm of Williamson's career, his stint on the court was short-lived.
The Summer of Zion was shut down before it began. Now, nearly three years later, he has played just 85 games in three seasons, dealing with a series of injuries that each came with their own series of vague updates from the organization about his status and timeline.
The Pelicans have offered several such updates this season. In fact, the team still has not given an official timeline for Williamson's return from the offseason foot surgery that kept him out all season. His status remains "out indefinitely" for Friday night's play-in game against the LA Clippers, with the winner advancing to the playoffs.
That lack of clarity has become a hallmark of Williamson's time in New Orleans, which has been dotted with highlights but clouded by questions about his health, his dedication to the organization and whether the team and its star player will ever be on the same page.
Oct. 5, 2019: The Pelicans host an intersquad scrimmage at the Smoothie King Center that officials estimate more than 10,000 fans attended. It was New Orleans' first glimpse of Williamson.
Oct. 7, 2019: Williamson finishes with 16 points and seven rebounds on 6-of-13 shooting in his preseason debut against the Atlanta Hawks.
Oct. 9, 2019: In a glimpse of how efficient he could be, Williamson goes 12-of-13 from the floor in his second preseason game as he finishes with 29 points in 27 minutes against the Chicago Bulls.
Oct. 13, 2019: Williamson notches a double-double with 22 points and 10 rebounds in his fourth preseason game, this one against the San Antonio Spurs.
On January 22, 2020, Zion Williamson made his NBA debut and went on a late surge, scoring 17 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter and stirring the crowd into a frenzy.
THE PELICANS WERE set to wrap up the preseason with their fifth and final game against the Knicks, but as New Orleans traveled from the Big Easy to the Big Apple, Williamson stayed behind to get imaging done on his sore right knee. In what would become a recurring theme, the team's official release ended with, "Further updates will be forthcoming when available."
Just over 24 hours before the Pelicans were set to open the 2019-20 NBA season against the defending champion Toronto Raptors on national television, the team gave the promised update.
"Zion Williamson underwent successful arthroscopic surgery today to address a torn right lateral meniscus. The routine debridement was performed by Dr. Jason Folk with assistance from Team Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Misty Suri. The timetable for his full return to play is estimated at six to eight weeks."
New Orleans dropped seven of its first eight games, and later suffered a 13-game losing streak to fall to 6-22.
Dec. 3, 2019: Just over six weeks after surgery, Williamson returns to on-court work, including light walk-throughs and spot shooting.
Dec. 25, 2019: Prior to the Pelicans' Christmas game against the Denver Nuggets, Williamson tells ESPN's Jorge Sedano that he would have made his debut already if it were up to him, but he "trusts the organization" in its decision-making process.
Jan. 2, 2020: Williamson returns to full practice.
Jan. 7, 2020: Williamson participates in 5-on-5 work for the first time since the preseason.
Jan. 15, 2020: Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin says Williamson will make his debut on Jan. 22 against the San Antonio Spurs at home -- a little over 13 weeks from the original surgery.
Zion Williamson admits his 15 minutes of action vs. the Jazz was a little frustrating, but he is happy to have the opportunity to play in the NBA's restart. (edited)
THE VIBE INSIDE the Smoothie King Center was electric. The Pelicans created a playoff-like atmosphere, complete with red T-shirts on every chair and 165 credentialed media members.
Williamson calmly went through his pregame routine, smiling for cameras and joking around with teammates. After a three-month delay, he was set to finally make his NBA debut. He wouldn't play a normal minutes load, but instead play in what the team dubbed "bursts."
The first burst was uneventful. He had one missed shot and one assist. His second burst, which came in the second quarter, brought his first NBA points.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker's short fadeaway was no good, but Williamson was there for the rebound. He maneuvered around Trey Lyles and snuck the ball in for his first official field goal.
Through three quarters, though, Williamson had five points, four rebounds and four turnovers.
Then came the takeover.
First, it was with his playmaking. With the Pelicans trailing 97-87 and just under 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Williamson picked up assists on back-to-back plays, first to Josh Hart and then to E'Twaun Moore. What came next nearly blew the roof off.
Williamson, not known for his shooting prowess, drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to cut the Spurs' lead to 99-94. The next time down, he caught a lob over DeMar DeRozan and finished with a left-handed layup.
The latest burst was supposed to be finished, but Williamson wasn't. As Nicolo Melli walked to the table to check in, Williamson drained another 3-pointer from the top of the key. The Smoothie King Center erupted.
The next time down, Williamson posted up in the middle of the lane against Jakob Poeltl, missed the layup, got his own rebound and put it back in to cut the lead to three.
Another possession, another 3-pointer.
Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry called Melli back from the table. Derrick Favors walked to the table to check in. He too walked back to the bench as Williamson took over.
Williamson gave the Pelicans a one-point lead with a 3-pointer on the left wing against LaMarcus Aldridge.
In a 188-second span, Williamson became the unstoppable force so many had thought he'd be.
But with 5:23 to go, Williamson was done. He was checked out of the game because, as Gentry put it, "the medical people said that was it." The Pelicans went on to lose 121-117, falling to 17-28, four games behind the eighth-place Spurs.
Jan. 26, 2020: Williamson notches his first career double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds (seven offensive) in the team's first victory with him on the court, a win against the Boston Celtics.
Feb. 8, 2020: Williamson misses a game against the Indiana Pacers because of a sprained left ankle.
Feb. 11, 2020: Williamson returns to the court with a 31-point effort in a win against the Portland Trail Blazers. He follows that up with a 32-point game in a loss to Oklahoma City prior to the All-Star break.
March 1, 2020: At Staples Center, Williamson puts up a season-high 35 points in a loss to the LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers.
THE PELICANS WERE 3½ games back of the eighth seed in the Western Conference standings when the 2019-20 season restarted in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
There was a healthy optimism around the franchise that they could make a push for the playoffs, either outright or through the newly implemented play-in tournament.
The NBA invited 22 teams to Orlando -- the top eight teams in each conference, as well as any team within six games of the eighth seed. With eight regular-season games left to make a playoff push, there were rumblings that the NBA's decision to include 22 teams was made to get Williamson on TV. The Pelicans were chosen to play in the first official restart game, while six of their eight seeding games were on national television.
As the team was gearing up for the return to play, Williamson was photographed in the team's weight room looking especially fit.
Built for this 💪 pic.twitter.com/xdB0OMex35— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) July 2, 2020
But on July 16, just a week after the team's arrival in the Orlando, Florida, bubble, Williamson left to attend to what the team called an urgent family matter.
There were some reports that Williamson had a hamstring injury at the time, but the official line has always been he needed to tend to a family emergency.
After Williamson returned to the Walt Disney World Resort and completed his four-day COVID-19 quarantine, sources told ESPN that he didn't look like the same player.
Because Williamson didn't play in the three-game preseason, the team monitored his minutes. He played just 29 minutes total in the Pelicans' first two games -- both losses. In the second game, Williamson finished with seven points, the only time in his 85 career games that he did not reach at least 10 points.
As Williamson struggled to get going, the Pelicans went 2-6 and missed out on the playoffs. Williamson sat for three of the last four games.
"We're not in the playoffs," Williamson said on Aug. 13 before the team's final game of the season. "We didn't reach the goal we wanted to reach. But the potential for the future is bright. That's a starting point, and we can just build off that."
Aug. 15, 2020: The Pelicans fire Gentry after five seasons. He went 175-225 and was the only coach in franchise history to have a winning playoff record (5-4).
Oct. 21, 2020: Stan Van Gundy is named head coach of the Pelicans.
Nov. 16, 2020: The Pelicans trade Jrue Holiday to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for a package including Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and three first-round picks (a 2020 first from Indiana and unprotected firsts in 2025 and 2027).
Nov. 20, 2020: The Pelicans and Bucks expand the Holiday trade, with New Orleans acquiring Steven Adams from the Thunder in exchange for George Hill, a protected first-round pick and two future picks in what became a four-team trade.
Dec. 23, 2020: Williamson opens the regular season with 15 points and 10 rebounds in a win over the Raptors, and follows that up with 32 points and 14 rebounds against the Miami Heat the following game. He then has his third consecutive double-double against the Spurs with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Jan. 13, 2021: Williamson misses a game against the Clippers because of an inconclusive COVID-19 test. Williamson returned two nights later against the Lakers.
Feb. 12, 2021: Williamson puts up a then career-high 36 points against the Dallas Mavericks while shooting 14-of-15 from the field.
March 4, 2021: Williamson misses the final game before the All-Star break, against the Heat, because of right fifth toe irritation.
March 7, 2021: Williamson starts the All-Star Game in place of Joel Embiid, who missed the game after being placed into health and safety protocols. He plays 14 minutes for Team Durant, scoring 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting in a losing effort.
March 26, 2021: Williamson has a career-high 39 points, along with 10 rebounds, against the Denver Nuggets. He has 38 points in the game against the Mavericks the following night.
May 4, 2021: Williamson plays his last game of the season after putting up 23 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and four steals against the Golden State Warriors.
WILLIAMSON PLAYED IN 61 of a possible 72 games during the shortened 2020-21 campaign. But two injuries pushed him off the court for extended absences.
In early April, Williamson missed three games because a right thumb injury that Griffin later said was one "quite frankly nobody else would've played through" and that Williamson had continued playing because he wanted to be on the floor with his teammates.
But on May 4, with the Pelicans making a final push for the playoffs, Williamson suffered a fractured left ring finger that ended his season early.
Williamson hurt his finger against the Golden State Warriors, appearing to suffer the injury that caused the fracture while chasing a rebound against Warriors center Kevon Looney.
During a 13-minute presser three days later, in which he took aim at the officials for how Williamson had been treated throughout the season, Griffin said the injury happened "over a period of time."
"I'm really frustrated because this was avoidable," Griffin said. "We told the NBA through every means available to us, through sending in film, through speaking to everybody in the officials department and everybody in basketball operations, that the way they were officiating Zion was going to get him injured. And quite frankly, he's injured because of the open season that there's been on Zion Williamson in the paint."
June 16, 2021: Van Gundy is fired after one season with the Pelicans, finishing 31-41. "This decision was not wrought out of our previous results," Griffin told reporters. "This was wrought in our philosophical difference in how we're going to reach the next step in our development."
July 26, 2021: The Pelicans trade Adams, Bledsoe, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2021 draft, as well as a protected 2022 first-rounder from the Lakers, to the Memphis Grizzlies for Jonas Valanciunas and the No. 17 overall pick. The teams also exchange second-round picks. At No. 17, the Pelicans selected Virginia forward Trey Murphy.
Aug. 2, 2021: In a sign-and-trade deal, the Pelicans send Lonzo Ball to the Chicago Bulls for Garrett Temple, Tomas Satoransky and a second-round pick.
Aug. 2, 2021: In a separate move that same day, New Orleans acquires Devonte' Graham in a sign-and-trade deal with the Charlotte Hornets for a lottery-protected first-round pick. The move would allow Williamson to play more "Point Zion" minutes, while Graham could function as both a point guard and off-the-ball catch-and-shoot threat.
WHEN THE PELICANS opened the 2021-22 season with media day, Griffin dropped a bombshell that Williamson had suffered a fracture in his right foot in the early part of the offseason.
"I think I was overdoing it when I was training," Williamson said. "I thought I had this huge chip on my shoulder, this huge boulder. I felt like I was getting after it every day when it was happening. It just happened. But the process in healing has been great. Working with the team every day, the trainer every day. It's been good."
Williamson reportedly suffered the injury and had surgery in July, though the team only ever confirmed that the surgery happened prior to summer league, which began on Aug. 8. The Pelicans maintained that Williamson would not miss the start of the season.
"His timeline should get him back on the court prior to the season," Griffin said on Sept. 28. "That would be our hope. That would be our view. We're very optimistic about what that looks like."
When asked directly if he thought he'd be back for the start of the regular season, Williamson was confident.
"I expect to be back for the first game," Williamson said. "First official game, I would say."
Williamson did not play in the Pelicans' first official game of the season. Or any game since. He has not spoken to the media since making that declaration.
Oct. 14, 2021: The Pelicans announce Williamson will not be ready for the start of the regular season and instead will be reevaluated in two to 2½ weeks.
Nov. 3, 2021: After a pregame video of Williamson, looking out of shape, leaks, Charles Barkley says on TNT's "Inside the NBA": "Somebody's got to be a grown person down in that relationship and say, 'Yo, man, you got to get in shape.'"
Nov. 9, 2020: Pelicans center Valanciunas says after a loss to the Mavericks that dropped the Pelicans to 1-10: "We haven't had Z this season. [We're] really waiting for him. We need him. He's gonna be the big piece for us offensively, defensively. The game is gonna change in a good way, big time."
Nov. 16, 2021: Williamson is cleared for contact and one-on-one workouts. At this point, the Pelicans' record stands at 2-13, second worst in the NBA.
Nov. 26, 2021: Williamson is cleared for full basketball activities, 4-on-4 work.
Dec. 2, 2021: On the day he is supposed to participate in his first full practice, it's announced that Williamson is experiencing soreness. The Pelicans are coming off a 32-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks, dropping to 6-18.
Dec. 11, 2021: Williamson's volume and training are reduced as he continues to deal with soreness in his foot.
Dec. 16, 2021: Williamson receives an injection in his foot to help facilitate the healing of the bone in his right foot.
Jan. 6, 2022: Instead of continuing his rehab in New Orleans, the team says Williamson will continue his rehab away from the team. Sources told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski that Williamson was headed to Portland.
Feb. 8, 2022: The Pelicans trade for Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum. New Orleans sends Josh Hart, Satoransky and picks to Portland.
Feb. 12, 2022: McCollum tells TNT during the All-Star break that he hasn't spoken to Williamson. Three days later, he tells ESPN's Malika Andrews that the two spoke directly after his comments.
March 5, 2022: Williamson returns from his rehab in Portland to rejoin the team in New Orleans.
March 22, 2022: Williamson posts a short video of him throwing the ball off the backboard, catching it and doing a between-the-legs dunk on his Instagram story. At the time, Williamson was not cleared to do such activities. The following day, the Pelicans cleared him for one-on-one work.
MCCOLLUM MET WITH the New Orleans media on Feb. 10 and was asked what made the team such an appealing option for him. McCollum immediately mentioned the young talent.
"Have you seen [Brandon Ingram] play lately?" he said.
He was then asked about Williamson.
"Zion's actually in Portland right now, ironically," McCollum said.
The trade to bring McCollum over from Portland was supposed to give New Orleans a trio of top-30 players and make up for striking out in free agency. The Pelicans finally had their high-level guard to put around their two All-Star forwards.
The only problem: They didn't have one of their All-Star forwards.
Griffin said on Feb. 10 that Williamson reacted "incredibly positively" to the news of the trade, adding that Williamson was frustrated he wasn't going to be in New Orleans for McCollum's debut.
Williamson was away from the team for roughly two months before returning in early March. According to his stepfather, Lee Anderson, one of the reasons he returned was because he saw how much fun the team was having as they made their push for the play-in tournament.
"He wanted to come back and be a part of what was going on," Anderson told The Jordy Culotta Show on April 5. "He liked what he saw with Coach Green. He likes the additions in New Orleans. "
According to multiple sources, there's currently a difference of opinion between the Pelicans and Williamson on whether he is healthy enough to play. The team maintains that the bone in Williamson's foot hasn't healed enough for him to take the floor.
Anderson suggested as much.
"Speaking for the Pelicans staff ... they are putting some stock in Zion getting healthy and being ready for the long haul," Anderson said. "But my thing with the long haul, you have to wait on it. The short haul, sometimes when you're faced with an opportunity right now, you never know when you're going to be presented with that opportunity again."
Throughout the process, there have been concerns about Williamson's conditioning level. Those have always been there. When he showed up to media day prior to the season, he looked well above his listed playing weight of 285 pounds.
Sources have told ESPN that Williamson is closer to his playing weight than he was at that date. Part of what he did in Portland was conditioning as much as he could while avoiding putting too much weight on his recovering foot.
Williamson was working with former Utah Jazz trainer Jasper Bibbs while in Portland. Bibbs spent several seasons with the Jazz before leaving to join LSU's men's basketball program last fall. Bibbs left the team shortly after arriving, however, and began working with Williamson late in the year, sources told ESPN.
Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon went to visit Williamson and was encouraged by what he saw.
Once Williamson returned to New Orleans, he started doing work with the Pelicans' training staff. Slowly, he was ramped up to one-on-one work. He routinely worked out under the watchful eye of assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon after practices and shootarounds as he played against Corey Brewer, one of the team's player development coaches.
Williamson showed some of the explosiveness that made him an All-Star in his second season. He was finishing around the rim with the touch many had seen in his first two years.
But the Pelicans are still maintaining that Williamson isn't ready to play in games. As the regular season ended, he did progress past 3-on-3 work but wasn't ready for a debut. His status for any potential playoff game is still unknown. The Pelicans are holding their plans close to the chest.
That hasn't stopped Williamson from trying to show he's ready to play. Prior to the Pelicans' play-in game against the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday, Williamson threw down multiple jaw-dropping dunks. Windmills. 360s. But it's unlikely he'd see the court unless New Orleans made a deep run into the playoffs.
Trading for McCollum was done in part to try to bring out the best in Williamson on the court, pairing him and Ingram with another player who could create his own shot and help provide spacing.
McCollum's presence provides the Pelicans with more of a veteran voice in the locker room to go along with Ingram's burgeoning leadership. Williamson doesn't have to shoulder much of that load. He just needs to be able to play.
"It's been great having him around," McCollum told ESPN. "He changes the game, he changes a franchise and he's must-see TV."