NEW ORLEANS — Zion Williamson was apprehensive in the first half of his first regular-season game with the Pelicans. He deferred to teammates. He passed out of traps. He did not use his 6-foot-6, 284-pound frame to demolish smaller defenders or propel the crowd to its feet with his dunks. Instead, he seemed determined to blend into the existing framework of his team.
It was Wednesday night at Smoothie King Center, and no one could blame Williamson for being tentative against the San Antonio Spurs. About three months removed from knee surgery, he had only recently resumed practicing. And now he was making his much-anticipated N.B.A. debut as the latest star on the league’s global stage.
At halftime, Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry intervened.
“I told him I wanted him to be a little more aggressive and to enjoy the moment,” Gentry recalled.
Williamson heeded that message in the fourth quarter, when he engineered a ridiculous stretch of basketball pyrotechnics. He pulled up in transition from the 3-point line. He plowed to the basket for a put-back layup. He went to the free-throw line as “M.V.P.” chants filled the arena. He scored on seven straight possessions, cluttering the box score with 17 points in just 3 minutes 8 seconds.
“He started to be who everyone thinks he is,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said.
Williamson, the top overall pick in last year’s draft, finished with 22 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists in a modest 18 minutes of playing time. But he had to watch the latter stages of the Spurs’ 121-117 victory from the bench, the victim of a minutes restriction as he works his way into playing shape. The crowd expressed its displeasure. Gentry said he had no choice.
“The medical people said that was it,” Gentry said. “He wasn’t happy about it. I don’t think anybody would be happy about it if you were playing at the level he was playing.”
Outrageous expectations have shadowed Williamson since he was in high school, and the remarkable thing is that he keeps meeting them — and even exceeding them. In four preseason games for New Orleans, he averaged 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 71.4 percent from the field.
But he had surgery in October to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, which sidelined him for the first half of the season while raising questions about his long-term durability. Williamson, whose body has the general dimensions of a vending machine, is a science experiment in high-tops: How can someone so large be so explosive? Is his brand of spring-loaded athleticism sustainable over the grind of an 82-game schedule?
New Orleans is a football city, but Williamson’s presence has captivated sports fans here. He offers fresh hope for a long-suffering franchise — if only he can stay healthy. That has become the refrain for fans like Larry Blake, 64, a sound editor who has been a season-ticket holder since the team’s inception in 2002.
“He doesn’t have to play off the charts right away,” Blake said before Wednesday’s game. “We know what he’s capable of. If he just plays well and stays healthy, then I think that’s great. And I think most people around here feel that way, too.”
Still, it was the most hyped debut for an N.B.A. player since that of LeBron James. Fresh out of high school in 2003, James played his first game for the Cleveland Cavaliers. In a 14-point loss to the Sacramento Kings, he finished with 25 points and 9 assists. But unlike Williamson, James was not coming off knee surgery — or a three-month layoff.
A disproportionate number of fans showed up to Wednesday’s game wearing replicas of Williamson’s No. 1 jersey — some of which were right off the shelves, some of which had been hanging in closets since October. Anthony Davis, the former franchise cornerstone whom the Pelicans traded to the Lakers last summer, was a ragged memory. The future was finally now.
Popovich was among those who expressed excitement.
“I’m glad he’s back,” Popovich said. “A talent like that? And he’s a great guy on top of it all.”
Popovich anticipated that the building would be buzzing, an unusual environment for a mid-January game between two teams with losing records. But he suggested that it was another inflection point for the N.B.A. Popovich recalled his first season as an assistant with the Spurs, in 1988-89, and how mesmerized he was by the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan.
“I just couldn’t take my eyes off him,” Popovich said. “So, I think about that, and now we have this new generation coming in. And I’m still hanging around.”
Williamson, who was in the starting lineup, took the court wearing a white sleeve on his right leg and played the first four minutes. On his first touch, he passed the ball back out to the perimeter. On his second touch, he threw it away for his first career turnover. On his third touch, he found Brandon Ingram cutting for a dunk. In the buildup to the game, Williamson had insisted that he just wanted to help his team win. The spotlight, the hype, the attention — it was a lot, even for him. And perhaps it was all weighing on him in his first brief bursts of playing time against San Antonio.
But it was not a particularly memorable stint of basketball. That would come later, after halftime, once he unearthed some magic.
“He hadn’t played in three months,” the Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan said. “Your wind is definitely different when you’re playing a real game.”
For his part, Williamson made clear that he was miffed about sitting out the final few minutes of the fourth quarter. He understood the reasoning behind it, he said, but he was still mad.
“It’s very hard,” he said. “And in that moment, I’m not thinking about longevity. I’m thinking about winning that game.”
As for his shooting 8 of 11 from the field and 4 of 4 from the 3-point line, Williamson cited a silver lining from knee surgery.
“When you’re not able to move around,” he said, “and do athletic movements for a while, the only thing you can do is shoot spot-up jumpers.”
Williamson was also asked whether he was excited to get back to a sense of normalcy, now that he had gotten through his big debut. Before he could answer — “Man,” Williamson said — Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday, who had accompanied him to his postgame news conference, piped up.
“It’s not going to be normal for him,” Holiday said. “The way he played is something he can do every day.”
That is the hope, anyway.