NEW ORLEANS — It was officially game No. 2 for Zion Williamson in his young career Friday night and, not surprisingly, he felt better than he did two days earlier.
Williamson also ended up playing about 2&½ minutes more than he did in his debut, but there are still fans who want more.
The “We want Zion!” chants once again filled the Smoothie King Center as Williamson sat on the bench at the end of the fourth quarter in a 113-106 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry again said he understood the frustration of the fans but said they should understand where the team is coming from.
“It’s the way we’ve decided, it’s best for him right now and that’s what we’re going to stick to,” Gentry said. “I know everybody gets real excited, and I hear every night that I’m the dumbest coach in the world about why would I take the guy out in the game of the last 5 minutes or 6 minutes? So I’ll live with that knowing that we’re doing the right thing.”
Williamson finished with just under 21 minutes — 20 minutes and 57 seconds, to be exact — and had his second consecutive efficient performance. He finished with 15 points, 6 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 massive block while going 7-of-9 from the field. He missed his lone 3-pointer and struggled at the free throw line, going just 1-of-4.
In his first two games, Williamson is a combined 15-of-20 from the field. According to research by the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the best field goal percentage through two games in the shot clock era (since 1954-55), with a minimum of 20 attempts. That’s out of over 300 players in this span with at least 20 attempts in their first two games combined.
Williamson said that while his conditioning improved as he works his way back from October knee surgery, he also felt as if the chemistry with his teammates was picking up. Still, he felt as if he could be doing more.
“I feel like I played all right,” Williamson said. “I think I missed the few passes that Jrue [Holiday] and Lonzo [Ball] threw to me. I think that could’ve been a couple easy buckets. I was out there when we were getting beat on offensive rebounds, so I feel like I could’ve done better with that as well.”
Williamson finished a team-high plus-16 against the Nuggets, so things are working when he is on the floor. The problem Friday was when he went to the bench.
Denver also finished with 24 offensive rebounds — the most any team has ever had against the Pelicans. That led to 35 second-chance points, which according to ESPN Stats & Information research is tied for the most second-chance points any NBA team has scored this season.
The Pelicans have lost both games Williamson has played after winning 11 of their previous 16. Holiday said that even though adding Williamson to the lineup is different, the team still should be playing better.
“I felt like we go through stretches where, even when he’s not on the court, we have to pick it up a little bit,” Holiday said. “We’ll figure it out.”
Brandon Ingram, who had been playing at an All-Star level this season, has struggled from the field in the past two games. He went 6-of-22 against San Antonio on Wednesday and was 3-of-11 against Denver. The three field goals tied for his lowest in a game this season and equalled the mark for a game he left in the second quarter because of a head injury.
Ingram said that while the rotations have been different, he thinks the team will get it figured out.
It remains unclear how long the rotations will stay the way they are because of Williamson’s restrictions. But Gentry was clear in noting that it won’t be this way for long.
“It’s frustrating right now because I think with him on the floor, obviously we’re pretty good, but we also got to be sensible in our whole approach to it,” Gentry said. “We got to understand, as I said right from the start, we got to think long term here. So he was able to play 20, 21 minutes tonight.
“I think he’s shown he’s getting more of a feel. The speed of the game and all of that. So we just got to be patient enough to understand to let him get to the point where he can play a normal rotation minutes. We will not deviate from that at all. If it will be a few more games, then that’s what it’s going to be and we just gotta understand.”
When asked if Williamson could play the end of the fourth quarters instead of the beginning, to finish out games, Gentry said the medical team prefers it the way it is now.
“And I’m 100 percent with them,” Gentry said. “So whatever they decide, because they know a hell of a lot more than us coaches.”