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 Monday night, it was clear that any restrictions were a thing of the past.
“It felt great to be out there for extended stretches,” said Williamson, who dealt with what the team dubbed “burst restrictions” last season. “It was great to experience that again.”
Williamson played 33 minutes, 13 seconds against the Heat, the third-most minutes he has played in an NBA game — preseason or otherwise.
“It was a different feeling. I can’t even lie,” Williamson said. “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 forgive him if his memory is a little hazy as the Pelicans won only three of the 11 he finished. Still, he rarely played for long stretches. That changed Monday. He played 10:19 in the first quarter, more than in any first quarter last season, according to ESPN Stats and Information. In fact, he played at least 10:19 in only three quarters total last season.
Williamson looked like his old self on the court as he finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds. He had only two double-doubles in 24 regular-season games last season (he did have one in the preseason last year), and his 11 rebounds would have 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 have 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 when Williamson, a 64% free throw shooter, shot above 90% 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 worked this offseason with Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson, who was credited with helping Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram with their shot improvements.
“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 to play the final 6:38 for Van Gundy, who said he wanted to get his starters about 30 minutes because they have only two preseason games.
Williamson has said how tough it was to play under restrictions last season. He said it was hard to get a rhythm going, so hitting the 33-minute mark Monday was something that felt right.
“That’s why I play basketball,” Williamson said, “to play a lot of minutes and help my team win.”