Zion Williamson rejoining Pelicans at pivotal time

METAIRIE (AP) — Zion Williamson opened with a joke — about himself.

A monthslong recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery is finally behind the New Orleans Pelicans rookie and top overall draft choice. And when Williamson discussed the long wait for his highly anticipated NBA regular-season debut today against San Antonio, he poked fun at himself for apparently dozing off while sitting on the bench during a couple of recent games.

“If ya’ll saw me meditating on the sidelines, it’s been very difficult,” Williamson said with a grin. “But it’s finally here. I finally get to go back out there.”

The whole league and basketball fans around the world seem to be as excited as he is.

The six-foot-six, 285-pound Williamson has been an Internet sensation since video clips were posted of his imposing frame barreling downcourt and soaring to the hoop for rim-rattling dunks as a high school player in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

File photo shows New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson going to the basket during a warm-up session. PHOTO: AP

The hype surrounding him only accelerated when he starred at Duke, averaging 22.6 points to go with nearly nine rebounds and nearly two blocks per game.

His selection at number one overall, unsurprising as it was, nonetheless ignited a celebratory frenzy among fans gathered for a draft-night block party in downtown New Orleans.

He drew a capacity crowd sprinkled with sports and entertainment celebrities to the Pelicans’ Las Vegas Summer League opener, only to make an early exit with a bruised left knee.

When Williamson returned for the preseason, he looked comfortable going strong to the hoop against the likes of Utah’s Rudy Gobert, the two-time reigning NBA defensive player of the year.

In four preseason games, Williamson averaged 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds before being sidelined to have surgery on October 21, the day before the regular-season opener. The initial prognosis was a six- to eight-week absence, but the Pelicans took a cautious, comprehensive approach with their prized draft pick that lasted much longer.

“There’s a lot of times when I wanted to punch a wall or kick chairs because it’s frustrating,” Williamson said. “To not be able to move your body the way you want to, not to make any athletic movements, I mean, it’s tough. Especially because I’m 19 and I haven’t even played my first NBA game. It was tough, but I battled through it.”