Zion Williamson returns to practice, raising Pelicans’ hopes

Sports

Injured New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson, left, and guard Jrue Holiday watch from the bench during the second half of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019, in Denver. The Pelicans won 112-100. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Zion Williamson returned to practice with the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday for the first time since he had arthroscopic knee surgery shortly before the season.

But the NBA’s top overall draft choice out of Duke cannot yet say when he’ll make his regular-season debut

“I felt really good out there,” he said.

Williamson, 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds, said he first must pass “assessments” by team medical staff before the decision can rest solely with him.

“It will probably be one of those moments, where, just like when it came to my college decision, I woke up and I’ll just know,” Williamson said.

Coach Alvin Gentry said Williamson participated fully in the on-court work, but the practice wasn’t particularly strenuous. It was the last practice before New Orleans flew to Los Angeles to play the Lakers on Friday night.

Gentry said Williamson is not expected to play on the two-game trip that includes a stop in Sacramento on Saturday. New Orleans plays at home on Monday night against Utah.

Gentry said the club needs to “see what kind of progress he makes, see what happens after he goes through practices.”

“I know that he’s making progress. That’s the thing that matters most,” Gentry said. “He’s moving good, but obviously there’s going to always be some reservations until you get full confidence in what you’re doing. … He practiced and that’s a good start.”

Williamson has never been shy about his eagerness to return to the court and described an internal struggle between his youthful exuberance and longer-term considerations.

“It’s been a hard balance because I am 19,” Williamson began. “But from a professional standpoint, I do have to look at longevity.”

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 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.

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

Gentry said that when Williamson finally plays, he expects the rookie’s physical presence to help New Orleans draw more fouls and improve its production from the foul line. Veteran guard Jrue Holiday described Williamson as “definitely an above-the-rim player” who will bring “energy to the game, momentum swings and overall just affecting the game in multiple ways — even defensively.”

“I don’t think people see him as a defensive player, but he definitely has the capabilities,” Holiday said.

The Pelicans recently lost 13 in a row, a franchise record. Now, with the prospect of Williamson’s return, there is hope for a club still holding postseason aspirations. New Orleans (11-23) has won five of six and entered Thursday just four games out of a playoff spot with 48 games remaining.

“Our emphasis still has to be on how we get this group better right now,” Gentry said, adding that when Williamson becomes available to play, “it will be an easy transition.”

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