But downtown New Orleans was largely quiet Wednesday, as Zion Williamson, the top pick in the 2019 NBA draft, made his long-awaited debut for the Pelicans in a 121-117 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Despite saturation media coverage that has followed Williamson since his days as a high school basketball phenom, residents were still nursing their LSU hangover rather than making plans for another all-nighter.
“Zion’s debut won’t be as big of a deal because this city is exhausted,” said Bowes, 36. “We just had the playoffs with the Saints. We just had New Year’s Eve. We just had LSU win it. The city is kind of recovering, and Mardi Gras is in a few weeks. Basketball is always going to be the third wheel in New Orleans.”
The 19-year-old Williamson has a way of converting skeptics into zealots, and the excitement in the building was tangible Wednesday, with hundreds of fans wearing his No. 1 jersey. During an electric fourth-quarter stretch, he scored 17 consecutive points, including four three-pointers, to help the Pelicans get back into the game. The Smoothie King Center crowd showered him with “M-V-P” chants, and he finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes.
Indeed, all eyes were on Williamson all day. More than two dozen media members attended shoot around on Wednesday morning, and ESPN used flexible scheduling to add the contest, hyping the addition with hours of Williamson highlights.
Perhaps it is fitting that Williamson’s return, which is arguably basketball’s biggest story this month, will be obscured in the afterglow of LSU’s perfect season. New Orleans has a long-standing reputation as a football town, and the Pelicans franchise, which was established as the Hornets after relocating in 2002 and renamed in 2013, has long existed in the shadow cast by the NFL’s Saints. Tickets to his debut were available for as low as $9 on the secondary market hours before tip-off, and hundreds of empty seats were scattered throughout the 300 level during the game.
After first rising to prominence at Spartanburg Day School in South Carolina with an endless reel of highlight dunks, he solidified his draft stock and social media dominance during a standout freshman season at Duke. Not everyone in New Orleans has caught Zion fever yet, and the recent success of both the Saints and LSU are obstacles to a fuller embrace locally.
“[LSU] Coach [Ed Orgeron] is the king of Louisiana,” said Thaddeus Brandt, a 23-year-old valet for a New Orleans hotel. “And Joe Burrow. I don’t think Zion is that significant yet, but good luck to him. I watched the whole [College Football Playoff national championship] game. If I see [Zion highlights] pop up somewhere, I’ll take a look. I won’t be searching for it.”
Among draft junkies and basketball die-hards, though, Williamson is the heir apparent to LeBron James from a hype perspective. He has amassed 4.4 million Instagram followers, and tickets to his standing room only Las Vegas Summer League debut were resold for more than $400 by parking lot scalpers. Jordan Brand and Gatorade quickly inked him to sponsorship deals this past summer, investing in his rare combination of charisma and athleticism.
New Orleans never hesitated in selecting Williamson with the first pick in June, targeting him as a replacement for Anthony Davis, who publicly requested a trade during the 2018-19 season. Once the Pelicans shipped Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers, the franchise belonged to Williamson. His face now appears on a gigantic mural adjacent to Smoothie King Center, the Pelicans’ arena. Williamson is flanked by members of a brass band and the tagline: “Impossible Alone. Possible Together.”
Williamson has hailed New Orleans, the NBA’s smallest market, as a “beautiful” city with “welcoming” people that “have shown me love everywhere I go.” Unfortunately, his takeover effort encountered a false start when he underwent surgery in October to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
That injury spoiled what had been a dominant preseason for Williamson, who averaged 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in four games, and it spoiled the NBA’s national television plans. Thanks to Williamson’s magnetism, New Orleans had been scheduled to play 11 of its first 20 games on ESPN, TNT or NBA TV. His three-month absence after surgery, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver noted last month, was a key factor in the league’s early-season television ratings decline.
“There were a lot of times I wanted to punch a wall or kick chairs,” he told reporters Tuesday. “It’s frustrating to not be able to move your body the way you want to or make athletic movements. It’s tough because I’m 19 and I haven’t even played in my first game. … I don’t know if I’m going to get sleep [tonight]. I’m going to be too excited thinking about my first NBA game.”
Putting the football factor aside, the timing of Williamson’s return boasts layers of intrigue. During his absence, the Pelicans scrapped to a 17-27 record entering Wednesday, placing them just 3½ games out of the final playoff spot in the West. New Orleans has the NBA’s second-easiest remaining strength of schedule, and a player with Williamson’s ability could provide the necessary boost.
The Pelicans took an ultra-patient approach with Williamson’s rehabilitation timeline, and he returned to the court with a strict minutes limit. His first shift Wednesday lasted just four minutes and he was sidelined during the game’s closing stretch. As his visibility on and off the court increases, early adopters such as Megan Holland, a 27-year-old manager at a New Orleans print shop, are confident Williamson’s local profile will rise.
“Anthony Davis is old news now, but it’s hurtful that he didn’t want to be here,” Holland said. “We care about people and not about the sports. We haven’t had a bunch of luck with the Pelicans. We’d love another Drew Brees or Joe Burrow, who give back to the community. It’s about that more than the actual game to us. We all think Zion can bring that to New Orleans.”
Williamson’s absence has also opened doors in other ways. Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, the No. 2 pick, has emerged as the rookie of the year favorite. Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram, meanwhile, has assumed alpha dog duties and played his way into the all-star conversation. Down the stretch, Williamson and Morant should inspire plenty of healthy debate, while Williamson and Ingram will need to prove they can complement each other rather than clash. The on-court stakes are high, and the Pelicans understand that Williamson’s profile will bring unprecedented daily scrutiny to a franchise that is often overlooked.
“I’ve never been through anything like that,” said guard Jrue Holiday, when asked Wednesday whether he had any advice for Williamson before his debut. “He’s in a class of his own.”
Juiciest of all, though, is the potential reward if the Pelicans can climb into the West’s final playoff spot: a first-round showdown with the Lakers. That series would pit Williamson against James and feature Davis’s old team and his current one, easily qualifying as a dream match-up for the league and its television partners.
Davis enjoyed strong support from the local fan base during the 2018 playoffs, and locals said that a similar run would be the tipping point for Williamson to emerge as a New Orleans sports icon.
“If we lost Anthony Davis the way we did and we didn’t draft Zion, I would be worried about losing the franchise [to relocation],” said Bowes, the bar owner. “Maybe the Anthony Davis thing was better for the franchise because they made changes, like [upgrading] the [medical] staff and the facilities. It boils down to this: We look for reasons to drink in New Orleans. If it’s a one-year-old’s birthday, let’s drink. If the Pelicans start winning a little bit, the city will embrace them.”
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