Zion ‘a force’ in Pelicans’ preseason home opener

NEW ORLEANS — Zion Williamson had just finished another layup at the rim while dealing with contact from the Utah Jazz‘s Ed Davis. The announced sold-out Smoothie King Center crowd sprang to its feet, reveling in what the New Orleans Pelicans rookie was doing in his preseason home debut.

The foul was called, and Williamson stepped to the line as he was about to finish off a 12-0 New Orleans run.

Josh Hart calmly walked up to him at the line and grabbed his muscle, squeezing Williamson’s right arm. He, like many others on Friday night, was just admiring the strength of the No. 1 pick.

“You can’t compare it to nobody,” Hart said. “Nobody can do that. He does a really good job of being able to use his body. I mean, he’s a force.”

When Williamson checked out with 7:08 left in the fourth quarter, the Pelicans had turned an 11-point deficit into a 113-109 lead. The Pelicans’ reserves — mainly players who will play on the team’s G-League affiliate — held on against Utah’s reserves for a 128-127 win.

Williamson finished with a game-high 26 points in just over 23 minutes while shooting 9-of-12 from the field and draining his only 3-point attempt.

In his past two preseasons games, Williamson is shooting 21-of-25 overall. It was his second consecutive game with at least 25 points while shooting 75 percent from the floor.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the only other players to have multiple games like that in the past 20 years in the preseason are Rudy Gay (2015, Kings), Kevin Martin (2008, Kings) and Shaquille O’Neal (1999, Lakers).

In the past 20 years, only two other rookies have done it once — Gordon Hayward and Dejuan Blair.

Williamson has done it twice in three games with two more left to play.

Of those 21 makes in the past two games, 20 have come around the goal. And apparently, it doesn’t matter who is at the rim — even if it was reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

Williamson attacked the rim several times with Gobert in the paint. He was fouled twice, hit the layup twice and once missed a floater over Gobert but followed his own miss up with a two-handed putback slam.

“You gotta give him respect, two-time Defensive Player of the year,” Williamson said. “Just gotta go in there strong and try to finish.”

Gobert said he made sure he didn’t give Williamson a chance to dunk on him but complimented the 19-year-old’s game, saying he has a “great future ahead of him.”

“He’s kind of surprisingly agile,” Gobert said. “I think he catches a lot of people off guard because of that. He can change direction pretty quick.”

His teammates weren’t surprised at Williamson’s willingness to go at the 7-foot-2 Gobert.

“I love it. I love it,” Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram said. “He’s strong enough to do it and he has the confidence to do it. That’s something we need from a guy with that talent right there. You can’t teach that. The confidence in him to go out here and go against those guys every night is big, even in preseason.”

The Pelicans improved to 3-0 this preseason, but it was the second game in a row New Orleans gave up at least 100 points in three quarters and faced a double-digit deficit entering the fourth.

Again, much like they did against Chicago on Wednesday, the Pelicans stormed back. But coach Alvin Gentry knows that’s not a sustainable formula for winning games.

“We have to get better in our defense, but we’re trying to put in a new system and this team is not a good team to play when you don’t have all of your defense in,” Gentry said.

Utah shot 59 percent overall and made 19 of 38 3s. Even in the fourth quarter when the Pelicans made their comeback, the Jazz were 12-of-25 from the floor.

Late rotations seemed to hurt the team, as Utah hurt New Orleans time and time again with corner 3-pointers, going 10-of-19.

“That’s one of the best-executing teams in the NBA,” Gentry said. “Even when you’re really solid with them defensively, they’ll find a weakness. They are rolling Gobert to the basket, it forces you to pull in. When they do, they do a great job of finding the guy on the weak side.”

Pelicans rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who said the Jazz made the right read “like 97 percent” of the time, was New Orleans’ second-leading scorer with 22 points.

He played in the first half for the first time this preseason but he watched from the bench as Williamson knocked down a 25-footer.

“I am a Zion believer,” Alexander-Walker said. “Anything he does, I’m right behind him 100 percent. If he wants to shoot wide-open 3s and knock it down, by all means keep doing that. It’s only going to make the team better.”

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