Zion Williamson debut: Five things to watch for as Pelicans rookie plays in highly anticipated first NBA game

Arguably the most hyped NBA debut since LeBron James is set to take place Wednesday night, when rookie Zion Williamson will finally suit up for a regular-season game as the New Orleans Pelicans host the San Antonio Spurs. ESPN flexed its national schedule to make sure everyone sees the game. Tip-off is set for 9:30 p.m. ET. 

Here are five things to watch for when Williamson takes the court for the first time this season.

1. Who’s starting spot will Zion take?

The Pelicans reportedly plan to start Zion right out of the game, per ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. So the question is: Who’s spot will he take? Derrick Favors is questionable to play vs. San Antonio. If he does go, my guess is JJ Redick will be the one to move to the bench, leaving a starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Zion and Favors. If Favors doesn’t go, Jaxson Hayes will likely get the start at center. 

2. How many minutes will Zion play?

Pelicans vice president David Griffin has said Zion won’t be on a hard minutes restriction, but he’ll clearly be monitored closely and play in short bursts — I’d guess four to five minutes at a time — in an effort to keep him from completely gassing himself out. Zion hasn’t played in live competition, against real opponents, since an Oct. 13 preseason game. 

Any player will tell you there’s no way to simulate live game action in practice or workouts. Zion’s going to be huffing and puffing, but New Orleans wants to get him up to speed as quickly as possible. Somehow, they’re still in the playoff chase. I’d say 25-30 total minutes for Zion would be a ballpark guess, but if he looks good and the Pels are flying high, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Alvin Gentry keep the pedal down a little longer than he’d planned. 

3. The Lonzo-Zion chemistry

Zion and Lonzo were clearly starting to develop a natural feel for one another in the preseason. They connected on lobs, some of which were from near half court. Lonzo is a head-up, push-the-pace point guard who is happy to pass ahead, and Zion fits the bill perfectly as the finishing athlete, either at the rim or in the open floor with the space to make his own move. 

Lonzo is beginning to look like the player he was supposed to be when the Lakers took him No. 2 overall in 2017. He’s a highly improved 3-point shooter, particularly as a catch-and-shoot and spot-up threat. But he’ll always be a natural point guard who naturally processes the floor and gets the ball to the right person at the right time. His passing instincts combined with Zion’s athleticism and finishing ability has all the makings of a pretty dynamic duo. 

4. The Brandon Ingram fit

Ingram has broken out as a legitimate star this season. He’s clearly become New Orleans’ go-to player, though they play a pretty egalitarian style. One exec who spoke with CBS Sports believes a lot of Ingram’s success this season can be attributed to him playing the four spot. With the Lakers, he was effectively a shooting guard with minimal shooting around him. At the four, he’s in better matchups with shooters all around him. 

Also, with Lonzo Ball missing time due to injury and being taken out of the starting lineup for a stint, Ingram has gotten more of an opportunity to initiate offense, which has surely opened the gates for his accelerated evolvement. Will Zion coming back interfere, even a little bit, with those dynamics? 

Differentiating between positions in Wednesday night’s game can feel pointless. Zion and Ingram are going to play the three and four spots on paper, and they’re going to be pretty interchangeable parts on the perimeter. It’s more about how they’ll play off one another. How will Zion being on the court impact Ingram’s matchups? Will Zion steal some pick-and-roll possessions? What about the driving lanes if Zion is spending more time cutting and rolling through the paint than, say, Redick, who is always spacing the floor out wide? 

Gentry will have to figure out which combinations work best. 

Ultimately, I don’t foresee big problems with the Ingram/Zion fit. Ingram is an improved and increasingly conscious playmaker. He’s been vocal about the excitement of getting Zion back and on the court. I think the overall energy of this young core finally feeling whole and together will largely carry the day. Ingram and Zion are both smart players, and they are both capable of making the kinds of individual plays that overwhelm whatever system and fit issue may or may not arise. But whereas Lonzo and Zion make obvious sense together, Ingram and Zion may take a little more time to fully jell. 

5. Defense!

Everyone loves to talk about offense, but perhaps the most intriguing part of imagining this Pelicans team at full strength was the defensive potential. With Zion, Ingram, Lonzo and Holiday, that is four long, athletic defenders who can switch most everything and guard both individually and collectively at elite levels (save for maybe Ingram on his own). 

New Orleans’ defense was a disaster to start the season. It’s gotten slightly better over this current 10-4 stretch, registering at 18th league-wide. Overall, this is the No. 26 defense in the league. I legitimately thought this would be a top-five unit. So did a lot of other people. Of course, Zion was a big part of that. As was Favors, who has missed time and made a big difference since returning. 

It might not show up right away. Defense is largely bout communication and collective, in-sync efforts. But the athleticism and individual defensive playmaking is in place for New Orleans with Zion in the fold. The idea of this team swarming offenses on the perimeter, jumping passing lanes for steals, rebounding and running with four guys who don’t need an outlet and can just push the tempo right off the boards, is super tantalizing. 

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