The New Orleans Pelicans opened the NBA’s Disney World reboot with a nail-biter loss to the Utah Jazz on Thursday, a game that left many wondering why star rookie Zion Williamson wasn’t on the floor in crunch time.
With around seven minutes remaining in the game, Williamson checked out and never returned, even as a four-point lead turned into a two-point loss. Williamson ended up posting 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 15 minutes.
The reason behind Williamson’s lack of playing time was a minutes limit imposed after he exited the NBA bubble for a family medical matter, then returned late last week. Williamson exited the NBA’s mandatory quarantine on Tuesday, but that was hardly enough time to ramp up for the NBA’s sprint to the playoffs.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry pointed to direction from the team’s medical staff when asked about the minutes limit after Thursday’s game. Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin elaborated on that the following day to NOLA.com’s Christian Clark, doubling down on the decision:
“I appreciate the fact that everyone wants him to play 40 minutes every night,” Griffin said. “I can promise you he’s not going to. No mistakes were made (Thursday) with how this was handled other than by me coming forward and expressing this in the clearest way possible. This isn’t complicated. He will not play significant minutes in the next game, and he may not in the following game. This is all about the ramp-up time. He didn’t get the benefit of the things that his teammates got for those 13 days. This is going to take some time.”
The Pelicans’ next game is against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, and Williamson can apparently expect to sit for much of that game as well.
Zion Williamson not happy about minutes limit
According to Yahoo Sports senior NBA insider Chris Haynes, Williamson is not too happy about the minutes limit. During an appearance on The Dan Patrick Show, Haynes reported Williamson’s reaction to Thursday’s game:
“I’ll say this, Zion was pissed. He wanted to play, and obviously, I think members of the Pelicans feel like if he was able to go down the stretch or play significant minutes, they would have got the win last night. But the plan was to get him out there in three-to-four minute bursts. They said he really wasn’t on a minutes restriction, but they just wanted to make sure they kept him in spurts. I don’t think Zion knew that he was going to go out there and get 15 minutes.”
Pelicans fans are probably in agreement with Williamson there.
Not the first time Pelicans have done this
If all of this sounds familiar, you might have tuned into Williamson’s debut. Williamson was limited to only 18 minutes on the floor when he made his NBA debut in January after sustaining a meniscus tear before the season.
Williamson didn’t play more than 30 minutes until the sixth game of his career. His career high in minutes remains 34:56 on March 4, a week before the NBA shutdown. Of course, there is a difference between recovery from knee surgery and conditioning after a week away from the team.
Pelicans playing nothing but must-win games
Underscoring the frustration around Williamson’s minutes is the Pelicans aren’t in a position where they can take it easy if they want to make the playoffs.
Thursday’s loss knocked the Pelicans down to 28-37, 3.5 games back from the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies. The ninth-place team only needs to be within four games of eighth place to qualify for a play-in series, but the Pelicans aren’t in ninth place right now. They’re in a tie for 11th. Between them and the Grizzlies are the Portland Trail Blazers, who beat the Grizzlies on Friday, and Sacramento Kings. The San Antonio Spurs are in a virtual tie for 11th at 27-36.
With seven games remaining in the regular season, the Pelicans need every win they can get if they want to make the playoffs this year. Maybe the team is prioritizing Williamson’s long-term health to the extreme with the belief that this year isn’t a priority, but that is hardly going to be satisfying for some fans.
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