LAS VEGAS — The lines began to snake around the outside of Thomas and Mack Pavilion hours before the doors to the arena opened. Amid the LeBron James Lakers jerseys and Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks jerseys were fans donning blue Duke Zion Williamson jerseys.
They waited, in the unrelenting sun, for a glimpse at the dunk-tastic No. 1 draft pick. Eight hours from when the lines began to form, Williamson would be making his summer-league debut.
“It’s safe to say this is the main event,” the in-game public address bellowed. The crowd roared back.
A look inside the day of Williamson’s pro debut reveals a chance encounter, a few highlight dunks and a scary ending. It was a memorable, if not spectacular, initiation for the most heralded NBA rookie in recent memory.
— NBA Summer League (@NBASummerLeague) July 5, 2019
Morning preparation, and grooming
The Pelicans’ morning film session was scheduled for 9 a.m. PT. By 9:53, Williamson, his teammates, coaches and front-office staffers piled into a bus and drove from the team’s Las Vegas strip hotel to the practice court on the basement level of Cox Pavillion.
New Orleans’ walk-through lasted just under an hour. Afterward, it was back to the hotel for a pregame nap.
Williamson’s stepfather, Lee, woke him up at 2 p.m. for a haircut in his room.
‘This is about to be everywhere’
At 5:02, less than 90 minutes before tip-off, Williamson crossed the team hotel lobby and headed to the bus with Randy Greenup, the Pelicans’ director of team security. When former franchise star Anthony Davis played for New Orleans, Greenup was Davis’ unofficial personal security guard. Now, Greenup and Williamson are joined at the hip. Davis, who recently forced his way out of town after seven seasons in New Orleans, was also in Las Vegas to check out some summer league action. He happened to be in the lobby when Pelicans coaches and staffers were making their way toward the bus.
Davis, who will play for the Los Angeles Lakers next season, is still well-liked by many within the Pelicans organization. He spent upward of 20 minutes catching up with some of his old colleagues as the Pelicans summer league players passed by on their way to the team bus.
Williamson was the last player to emerge from the elevator. Instead of heading directly to the front doors, the No. 1 draft pick made a quick detour.
“What’s up, boy?” Davis said with a smile as the pair exchanged a handshake and a hug. “You good?”
The pair shared a few quick words as the same Pelicans staffers who had just spent time with Davis smiled at the absurdity of the moment. Here was the past and future of the organization coming together right before Williamson’s first game. As Williamson started to walk away, Greenup couldn’t let the moment go by without trying to document what he was seeing.
“Hold on, Z,” Greenup said to Williamson. “Hold on. I got to take a picture of my guys, man.”
Davis, who started to walk out of the shot, smiled as Greenup took a couple pictures of the pair, who never quite stood still enough to take the perfect shot. Interested onlookers quietly watched the proceedings and other tourists walked by without a second glance.
“This is about to be everywhere, dawg!” Davis said as he and Williamson exchanged a laugh before the rookie made his way to the bus.
Lots of players in Vegas watching Knicks-Pelicans 👀
Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball, PJ Tucker, DeMar DeRozan, LeBron, Ja Morant, Trae Young … pic.twitter.com/vLK94tnuaJ
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) July 6, 2019
Williamson — dressed in a T-shirt and shorts — was the first Pelicans player to walk through the red door that leads to the bowels of the Thomas and Mack Center at 5:36 p.m.
Center of attention
Hours before tip-off, fans filled the arena. The seats are first come, first served, and attendees wanted to reserve their seats early. As the minutes ticked down toward game time, more fans steamed through the entrance.
Zion Williamson steals the ball from Kevin Knox and finishes with a dunk.
NBA players seemed eager to get a glimpse at Williamson’s first NBA minutes too. LeBron James and DeMar DeRozan sat on the baseline. Buddy Hield and Collin Sexton sat side by side. Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Josh Hart, Julius Randle and Trae Young were all in attendance.
“We have no open seats,” the public address announcer said over the speaker system. “We are sold out. Get familiar with your neighbor.”
Meanwhile, Williamson’s mother, stepfather and younger brother, Noah, filed into the arena. As Williamson’s stepfather, Lee Anderson, walked to his seat he told ESPN: “This is a big night. Look at all these folks.”
The crowd was delighted when Williamson threw down a behind-the-back 360 dunk during pregame layups.
Finally, it was time.
The cheers for Williamson — who was announced last in the starting line up — were thundering, but the response to his former teammate RJ Barrett may have been louder.
This couldn’t have been the inaugural game that Williamson envisioned. Sure, he threw down three powerful dunks that excited Hart and Ball enough to cause them to leap from their seats, but that’s where the spectacular ended.
After playing just nine minutes, Williamson knocked knees with another player. As a precaution, the Pelicans decided to hold him out for the remainder of the game. He finished with 11 points (on 4-of-9 shooting) and three rebounds.
With just under eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, the scoreboard began to sway and the floor began to shake. At first, the players on the court seemed not to notice the earthquake. Eventually, the referee blew the whistle and coaches beckoned their players to their respective benches. Both teams remained on the court for several minutes before walking back to their locker rooms.
The game was postponed. Williamson was hustled out of the arena between two security guards. Fans seeking autographs and selfies were rebuffed by Greenup and just like that, it was over.