Zion Williamson projected to debut Jan. 22 for Pelicans

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New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson, second from left, watches with teammates during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Zion Williamson, the top choice in last summer’s NBA draft, is scheduled to make his regular season debut for the Pelicans on Jan. 22 when New Orleans hosts the the San Antonio Spurs, Pelicans basketball operations chief David Griffin said Wednesday.

“Everything’s moving in the right direction,” Griffin said. “I really believe very strongly he is a radically improved physical version of himself in way that frankly we took the extra time to ensure.”

Williamson has missed New Orleans’ first 41 games this season while rehabilitating from arthroscopic surgery to repair the lateral meniscus in his right knee. The timeline set for the former Duke star’s return calls for Williamson to miss three more games, starting with Thursday night’s home game against Utah.

New Orleans also hosts the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday and visits Memphis on Monday.

Griffin also indicated that Williamson’s minutes will be closely monitored and likely limited for the time being.

“From a sustaining health standpoint, we’re certainly going to treat him differently,” Griffin said. “It’s not about a hard minutes restriction. It’s about what the bursts need to look like. It’s what you’re measuring him by. When you return to play from a serious injury, it’s not going to be a number. He’s going to play in limited numbers of bursts.”

The Pelicans have gone 15-26 without Williamson, but have won nine of their last 13 to pull within four games of the final Western Conference playoff spot with half the season left.

The 6-foot-6, 285-pound Williamson is relatively heavy for an NBA player, never mind one who moves well and often soars above the rim for the kind of dunks that have made him an internet sensation since high school in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The purpose of his mid-October surgery was to repair cartilage that serves as natural padding in the knee joint. So the club has taken a cautious approach to his rehabilitation in hopes of minimizing the possibility of a setback while also trying to improve his overall physical condition.

“You’re addressing everything,” Griffin said. “You’re addressing ankle flexion, and knees and hips and back and everything else.

“What’s happened is his whole kinetic chain is in a whole better position now because of this,” Griffin continued. “It starts with being more flexible. Once you make somebody more flexible, you have to give them the strength to control that flexibility. That’s been a dance, it really has been. But he’s been able to do some things physically that he wasn’t able to do before. Particularly because of the amount of flexion he has in his ankles and his hips. He’s in a good place.”

Williamson returned to practice on Jan. 2 and recently has been seen dunking during Pelicans pre-game warm-up sessions.

But because of the recent frequency of games and travel days, along with having several other players injured, the Pelicans have not been able to string many higher-intensity, five-on-five practices together.

“We haven’t had those days where we can amp everything up and have him participate in the practices, you know, the physicality of it and all of that,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “Obviously, he’s an explosive guy and that’s pretty evident from him practicing in some situations.

“He’s got a great feel for the game,” Gentry added. “But we’ve got to keep in mind, guys, that he’s never played an NBA game. He’s played preseason games, which doesn’t count, really.”

Gentry said determining which four other players comprise the best lineup with Williamson on the floor also will take some time.

Williamson played in four preseason games before his injury, averaging 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds. He had surgery in mid-October.

He averaged 22.6 points per game at Duke during the 2018-19 season and also was voted to the ACC’s All-Defensive Team after averaging 8.9 rebounds, 2.12 steals and 1.8 blocked shots per game.

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