Zion Williamson was living in the moment during his NBA regular-season debut Wednesday night, which his New Orleans Pelicans lost 121-117 to the visiting San Antonio Spurs at the Smoothie King Center.
"It was very hard," Williamson said postgame, according to ESPN's Andrew Lopez, referencing being limited to 18 minutes. "I'm 19. In that moment, I'm not thinking about longevity. I'm thinking about winning the game. It was very hard [to get pulled]."
The rookie No. 1 overall pick was on fire in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 straight points, but he was replaced at the 5:23 mark with the Pels trailing 111-108.
New Orleans was cautious with Williamson as he played his first minutes since he went arthroscopic surgery on Oct. 21 to address a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Head coach Alvin Gentry addressed the decision at his postgame press conference:
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Alvin Gentry on big picture for Zion impacting how much he played vs. Spurs: "You've got to be smart about it. We understand that we have to look long term, and not one game, short term. Putting him out there for extended minutes, we were not going to do that in any situation."
"I ain't the brightest coach in the world, but I wasn't going to take him out in that situation unless I was told to," Gentry also quipped.
Williamson's frustration about not being able to close out the game isn't surprising given how he felt during his long recovery.
"The rehab workouts were long and strenuous," Williamson told reporters Tuesday. "There were a lot of times when I just wanted to punch a wall or kick chairs. It's frustrating to not move your body the way you want to, especially since I'm only 19 and haven't played my first game yet. It was tough, but I battled through it."
Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said the team would not have a "hard minutes restriction" for Williamson in his debut but would monitor his minutes, Lopez reported Monday.
Williamson might not be thinking about the long game, but New Orleans rightfully is.
What Williamson lacked in minutes, Pelicans fans made up for in a warm welcome:
The Duke product finished with 22 points—which was tied with Ingram for the team-high—seven rebounds and three assists in a record-setting performance:
Williamson and the 17-28 Pelicans are next in action Friday night against the visiting 30-14 Denver Nuggets.