New Orleans Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy said they decided to give forward Zion Williamson a full-game audition as their primary ball-handler with guard Lonzo Ball sidelined by a hip injury, and he was pleased with the results.
"He played the game the way you're supposed to play the game. He was just tremendous," Van Gundy told reporters after Friday's 101-94 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Williamson finished the contest with 37 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists in 35 minutes.
The 2019 first overall pick has run the Pelicans' offense at times over his first two seasons, but Friday night marked the first time they gave the 6'7'', 284-pound superstar full control. He responded with one of the most impressive performances of his young career.
Van Gundy explained it's probably far from the last time fans will see Williamson running the point.
"We want to get him more experience with that stuff going forward because I think that's where his future is in this game. I really do," he said. "He just needs reps and more and more and we've increased it throughout the year giving him more and more opportunities. We'd like to give him more going forward. We'll try to build some more things for him."
The 2021 All-Star selection is enjoying a terrific second NBA season. He's averaging 26.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 61.7 percent from the field, making him the only non-center inside the top 10 of field-goal percentage.
Williamson, who's a consistent three-point shot away from being virtually unstoppable, said he didn't feel out of place running the offense.
"It just feels natural to me," the Duke product said. "I've been playing the game since I was four. At this point, it just feels natural. I'm still learning, but certain things just feel natural."
Ball recently missed seven games with a left hip flexor strain and, after a three-game return to the lineup, he was back on the sideline Friday.
It's an injury the Pelicans will probably have to manage during the stretch run of the regular season, likely opening the door for plenty of point guard minutes for Williamson. Based on Friday night, that's bad news for the other teams in the hunt for the final playoff berths in the Western Conference.
New Orleans (23-29) is one game behind the Golden State Warriors (24-28) for the 10th seed in the West, which is the final spot in the play-in tournament before the playoffs. Those two teams will play three times over their last eight regular-season games in May.
Williamson and the Pelicans are back in action Sunday when they visit Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse to face off with the Cleveland Cavaliers (19-32).