CHICAGO — It was a step forward for New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson on Wednesday against the Chicago Bulls. It was also a step back for the Pelicans’ defense.
Despite a game-high 29 points for Williamson through the 3:54 mark of the third quarter, New Orleans trailed by as many as 23 points early in the fourth quarter.
Even though neither Williamson nor any of the other Pelicans starters checked back in, New Orleans stormed back to take a 127-125 preseason victory over the Bulls.
It was clear from the start that the Pelicans were going to try to get Williamson involved often and early.
“We have to get him moving,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “We want him in space. We want to play him in space. The way you can do that is you have to get him on the move. I thought we did a good job, and he did a good job and being able to finish.”
Williamson had 16 points at halftime and put up 13 more in the third quarter while shooting a combined 12-of-13 from the field.
In his preseason debut on Monday in Atlanta, Williamson was 6-of-13 from the floor while missing all three of his 3-point attempts. Against the Bulls, he lived at the rim.
All 13 of his shot attempts came from within 5 feet of the basket. Williamson said he wants to attack the rim by nature, and he was doing that against Chicago. But it also helped that he was getting going more.
“It was not trying to stay still,” Williamson said. “Sometimes I find myself standing still. If I feel like I’m standing, I circle around and try to find an open spot.”
Count Bulls coach Jim Boylen and guard Zach LaVine among those who were impressed by Williamson’s showing.
“I was amazed at his body control for a guy that big,” Boylen said of the 285-pound Williamson. “I was amazed where it looked like moments where he wasn’t going to get to the rim, but he did.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen him in person. I saw him in the summer league for the five minutes he played or whatever it was, so it’s amazing for a guy that big to kind of be able to slither through and snake through things and get to the rim, even though people are in front of him. It’s a heckuva skill.”
LaVine smirked when he talked about Williamson after the game.
“I wanted to see what it was like firsthand,” he said. “I’m a competitive guy, and he’s the truth.”
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Williamson’s 29 points were the most by a rookie in the preseason in the past three seasons and the most by a No. 1 pick in the preseason since Derrick Rose had 30 points in 2008.
Even with Williamson’s scoring, the Pelicans found themselves trialing 107-86 entering the final frame.
Chicago was shooting 53.7%, and Gentry wasn’t pleased with what he saw. But the veteran coach rolled with Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Frank Jackson, Kenrich Williams and Jahlil Okafor for the entire fourth quarter, and there was marked improvement.
The Bulls were just 5-of-22 from the field in the fourth quarter as New Orleans outscored Chicago 41-18.
“I think it speaks loudly about the depth that we have,” Gentry said.
Three of those players — Hart, Alexander-Walker and Williams — were not among the 10 Pelicans to play in the first half.
Alexander-Walker showed his resolve when he missed a pair of free throws late in the fourth but turned around with a game-tying 3-pointer and the go-ahead free throws with 57.9 to play.
His play didn’t surprise Williamson at all.
“I know Nickeil. I know what he can do,” Williamson said. “I was happy he got to go out there and show the world he could do that.”
ESPN’s Eric Woodyard contributed to this report.