The way the New Orleans Pelicans handled the minutes of rookie forward Zion Williamson was seemingly the talk of the NBA on Thursday night as the league returned to play in Orlando.
On Friday afternoon, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin spoke to reporters to try and clear up the situation — including why Williamson only played at the beginning of quarters and wasn’t on the floor as the Utah Jazz took the lead in the fourth quarter and ultimately handed New Orleans a loss.
“The reason they are taking place as they are at the beginning is just that the medical team wants to make sure he’s warm and loose before he gets on the court,” Griffin said. “Everything that they are doing is predicated on that. The players have a very clear routine. His routine is to get loose at a certain time. We don’t want him to get loose and then sit on the side and wait because that’s not conducive to him playing his best.”
In 15 minutes on Thursday, Williamson finished with 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting but didn’t record a rebound, steal or block. He did have a nifty behind-the-back assist to Lonzo Ball but that was his only one. He checked out for good with 7:19 left in the fourth quarter with the Pelicans up four and did not return even as Utah took the lead.
That, according to Griffin, was all a part of the plan. Griffin explained that the Pelicans’ medical and performance staff had a “very clear plan” for every player heading into Orlando and that because Williamson missed time away from the team because of a family medical emergency from July 16-24 and then his four-day quarantine after that, the rookie missed crucial time to get ready.
“And every member of the team got to go through that plan,” Griffin said. “That plan included scrimmage minutes that many of the team got to play. Many of our players were held to 15 minutes or 12 minutes or whatever. Not because there is a fixed minutes number, but because there was a fixed approach to how they were going to play the game.
“Everybody got to do that over the course of the scrimmages. Zion didn’t get that opportunity. Unfortunately, because of the situation with his family, he was called away. It was a very legitimate reason to leave. But unfortunately, he’s 13 days removed from the group in terms of following that plan after not playing basketball for what amounts to four months.”
With regards to the starters’ minutes, in the Pelicans’ first scrimmage, Lonzo Ball played 19 minutes, Jrue Holiday played 15 minutes, Brandon Ingram played 10 minutes and Derrick Favors sat out. In the second scrimmage, Ball and Holiday played 12 and 13 minutes respectively while Favors played 12 and Ingram sat out. In the final scrimmage against Milwaukee, all four players were between 17-23 minutes.
Griffin added Williamson wouldn’t play “significant minutes” against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday and “may not” in the game against Memphis on Monday night. The Pelicans are 4.5 games back of the Grizzlies for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff race.
“This is all about the ramp up time,” Griffin said. “He didn’t get the benefit of anything that his teammates got for those 13 days. This is going to take some time and I think it’s going to take time for him, he mentioned his flow and rhythm. It’s going to take time for him to find that.”
David Griffin, the Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations, said Friday that Zion Williamson’s playing time is mapped out before each game, and won’t increase appreciably in the near future. Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images
Griffin said the practice and condensed game schedule in Orlando doesn’t allow for the team to get the 5-on-5 work it wants in order to get Williamson up to speed on off days. So they have to do it in game situations.
“I realize that it’s really detrimental to doing what we’re attempting to do which is make the playoffs, but if we’re going to have him at full strength coming through these games, he’s got to go through this process,” Griffin said. “There is no alternative. There wouldn’t be for any other player.”
While Williamson and his 285-pound frame are unique, Griffin stressed any player on the roster that missed 13 days of work leading up to this point in Orlando would be going through the same thing.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said prior to the games, he, Griffin and vice president of player care and performance Aaron Nelson sit and come up with a comprehensive plan on how Williamson will be used.
“We come to an understanding that this is the best right now for him from the standpoint of the burst that he would have,” Gentry said. “That’s the way we try to play him.”
As the amount of “bursts” increases, it’s possible the team allows Williamson to finish out quarters instead of just starting them.
For the players, things were a little difficult but it is something that the team has dealt with already. In January when Williamson made his debut after missing 43 games with knee surgery, he played on a similar schedule.
“It’s definitely unfortunate but, for him, he’s a once-in-a-generation type player,” Pelicans guard Josh Hart said. “You have to definitely look at the long term for him. We just have to go out there and hoop whether he has 3 minutes, 5 minutes a quarter, whatever it is.
“We have to go out there and just hoop when he’s out there and use him to our advantage. When he doesn’t, we have guys who are fully capable of stepping up [and] filling that void when he’s not out there. Yesterday was a little bit of a challenge but we know what it is from before. We just have to make the best of it. Guys have to step up and play bigger roles until he’s fully able to be out there. I think we’re very capable of doing that.”