The No. 1 overall pick had some dominant spurts in the team's first seeding game against the Utah Jazz on Thursday, scoring 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting as New Orleans built an early lead. But as the Pelicans' lead slipped away, fans were left wondering why he wasn't on the floor.
Williamson played just over 15 minutes against the Jazz, and he was on the court for just over 14 minutes of action during a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday.
Writers such as The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wondered at the timing and allocation of these minutes, suggesting the Pelicans lost a "winnable" game against the Jazz by keeping the 20-year-old off the floor. The player himself addressed the minutes restriction on Sunday, saying it has been a tough adjustment.
Pelicans president of basketball operations David Griffin tried to explain New Orleans attempts to get Williamson a lot of work in during warmups so he can provide those explosive bursts in the first few minutes of quarters.
Or, perhaps there is another rationale for the Duke product's pregame structure: The Pelicans are still working to get him back up to speed.
Brian Windhorst of ESPN reported on his podcast that he spoke to a scout who claimed Williamson was "moving worse than he did" in the NBA Summer League last year. This same scout also suggested he should not even be playing in the restart.
There are other components to this whole situation. Zion displayed what appeared to be a much different physique at the beginning of July. But he was apart from the the Pelicans for nearly two weeks due to a family medical emergency, and he was not a certainty to play against Utah until a few days prior. As a result, he has occasionally looked to be stuck in the mud defensively.
Seth Partnow of The Athletic noted the Jazz and Clippers combined to score 152.5 per 100 possessions in the 29 minutes Williamson was on the floor. Utah and L.A. shredded the Pelicans both from the perimeter and at the rim with Zion in the game, also dominating the offensive glass. Indeed, Williamson was -16 during the loss to the Jazz and -17 against the Clippers.
However, the former Blue Devils star showed signs of life in a win against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday. He played 25 minutes, scoring 23 points on 9-for-21 shooting after making just two of his first seven attempts. He also chipped in seven rebounds and five assists, and he was plus-8 for the contest.
The Pelicans are fighting for a playoff spot. One team source told Joe Vardon of The Athletic they expected to possibly struggle in its first two games, irrespective of the noise surrounding Williamson.
But Monday's win was a big step forward for New Orleans. Not only was Zion more active and impactful, but the Pelicans also dropped the Grizzlies—who entered the restart as the eighth seed in the Western Conference—to 0-3 in Orlando.
The Pelicans still trail Memphis by 2.5 games, and they are also still a half-game behind the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs. However, the team's next five games are much friendlier.
New Orleans has a couple days off before a matchup with the Sacramento Kings on Thursday. Their next four games include another tilt with the Kings, as well as the Spurs, Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic.
The schedule seems to line up well for the Pelicans, but all eyes will continue to be on Williamson as New Orleans looks to secure a spot in the play-in tournament for the eighth and final seed.
Xavier Tillman Could Fall to Second Round
Michigan State big man Xavier Tillman established himself as a force to be reckoned with for the Spartans during the 2019-20 NCAA basketball season.
The 21-year-old entered MSU as a backup, but his prowess especially on the defensive end of the floor helped him become entrenched in Tom Izzo's lineups.
Tillman started all 31 games for the Spartans, averaging 13.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists to go along with 1.2 steals and 2.1 blocks.
The Grand Rapids native's two-way versatility and efficiency (55 percent shooting last year) would seem to make him a top frontcourt target in the draft this fall.
However, Sam Vecenie of The Athletic reported "people in front offices" are not high on Tillman, and he expects him to fall between the 25th and 40th picks:
"Right now, I’d say the consensus on him from NBA teams is somewhere in the 25 to 40 range. I’d be pretty surprised if he got beyond No. 45, and I’ll be stunned if he doesn’t end up with a guaranteed deal by the end of the offseason. But teams are worried that the shot won’t ever fully come along, and that they’ll be drafting a backup center."
At just 6'8," Tillman does not have a ton of size. He also isn't much of a shooter from the perimeter, though he might be able to become a pick-and-pop threat in the NBA.
However, what he lacks in physical attributes and overall upside, he seems to make up in sheer dedication and effort.
Tillman might not be a first-round pick, but it seems likely he will be drafted come October.