Zion unleashed: Pels star thrives in big minutes

When Zion Williamson told reporters about not having any sort of restrictions on him this season, he was happy. The smile on his face was bright and his happiness shined through on the video call last week.

After the New Orleans Pelicans‘ 114-92 win over the Miami Heat in their preseason opener on Monday night, it was clear that any restrictions were a think of the past.

“It felt great to be out there for extended stretches,” Williamson, who dealt with what the team dubbed “burst restrictions” last season, said. “It was great to experience that again.”

Williamson played 33 minutes, 13 seconds against the Heat, the third-most minutes he’d played in an NBA game — preseason or otherwise.

“It was a different feeling. I can’t even lie,” Williamson said after the game. “It was a different feeling for sure. I think I was only able to finish a game maybe three, maybe four times last year. But it was a great feeling. When the clock struck zero, I was almost like, ‘Wow, it’s been a while.'”

Williamson actually finished 11 of 24 games last season but rarely played for long stretches. That changed Monday, as he played 10:19 in the first quarter, more than he played in any first quarter last season, according to ESPN Stats and Information research. In fact, he only played at least 10:19 in only three quarters last season total.

Williamson also looked like his old self on the court as he finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds. He only had two double-doubles in 24 regular-season games last season (he did have one in the preseason last year) and his 11 rebounds would’ve tied his career-high.

Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said he was impressed with Williamson’s effort on the defensive glass where he pulled down eight rebounds — which also would’ve been a career-high.

“He hasn’t really been doing much of that in practice to be honest and it wasn’t a strength last year,” Van Gundy said. “For him to be able to rebound the ball the way he did on the defensive end was good.”

Van Gundy was also impressed with Williamson’s free-throw shooting as he went 10-of-11 from the line. The only times last season where Williamson, a 64.0 percent free-throw shooter in 2019-20, shot above 90 percent from the line were when he hit his only attempt against Utah in the bubble and when he knocked down both attempts against Cleveland on Feb. 28.

“The free throws, I feel like I’m going to get fouled a lot,” Williamson said. “That’s free money. I gotta make that.”

Williamson has been putting in work this offseason with Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson, who was credited with helping Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram with their shot improvements last season.

“Me and Coach Vinson have been putting in a lot of work every day in practice, free throws, working on the jumper, working on everything involving my shot,” Williamson said. “That’s been really helpful up to this point.”

Williamson was sitting at 26 minutes when he checked out after the third quarter but came back in to play the final 6:38 for Van Gundy, who said he wanted to get his starters around 30 minutes since they only have two preseason games.

Williamson has admitted how tough it was at times to play under burst restrictions last season. He said it was hard at times to get a rhythm going last season. So to hit the 33-minute mark on Monday, it was something that felt right.

“That’s why I play basketball,” Williamson said, “to play a lot of minutes and help my team win.”

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