NEW YORK (AP) — Zion Williamson resumed his assault on backboards and basketball players, leaving both at the mercy of his skills and strength.
“It’s like he didn’t miss a beat,” New Orleans coach Willie Green said. “You just throw the ball to him and watch what he does.”
Williamson returned from a one-year absence with 25 points and nine rebounds, powering the Pelicans to a season-opening 130-108 rout of the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night.
The No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft looked fully recovered and explosive after being sidelined with a broken right foot, and his addition to a roster that made the playoffs without him could make the Pelicans a rising team in the Western Conference.
“Simply playing the game I love that I didn’t get to play for a long time just was a breath of fresh air,” Williamson said.
Ben Simmons also returned to action after a missed season but had the misfortune of having to cover Williamson for much of the brief time he was in the game. He fouled out early in the fourth quarter with four points, five rebounds and five assists, taking three shots.
“It takes time,” Simmons said. “Having back surgery and being away from the game for a year there are little things that your mind might tell you to do something, but your body’s not wanting to do that.”
Brandon Ingram scored 28 points and CJ McCollum had 21 for the Pelicans, who finished strong last season and opened impressively in this one. Jonas Valanciunas had 15 points and 13 rebounds and New Orleans outrebounded Brooklyn 61-39.
“This is a grown man’s league and the most physical team wins and New Orleans came into this with an intent to show why they’re going to be in the hunt for championships over the next few years,” Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving said.
Kevin Durant scored 32 points but was largely a one-man show, with no other Nets player in double figures until the final two minutes of the third quarter. Patty Mills had 16 points and Irving managed 15 on 6-for-19 shooting, going 0 for 6 from 3-point range.
The 6-foot-6, 285-pound Williamson was quick off his feet for rebounds and forceful with his moves into the paint, displaying his level of athleticism that’s rare even in the NBA. His basket-shaking dunk with about 8 1/2 minutes remaining brought some of the few cheers from a dejected crowd who watched the home team never lead and trail by as many as 26.
It was already 7-0 before Simmons made the first basket of Brooklyn’s season. The Pelicans raced to a 20-4 lead and Williamson’s layup made it 32-14 after one.
It was 58-50 at the half before Ingram scored 12 points and Williamson added 11 on 5-for-6 shooting in a 40-point third as the lead grew to 26 before the Pelicans took a 98-78 lead to the fourth.
It was a bad way to start the season for a Nets team that desperately wants to forget the last one. A first-round exit — when Simmons never played because of back problems after being acquired for James Harden — gave way to a tumultuous offseason in which Durant asked to be traded and the Nets refused to give Irving a contract extension, forcing him to pick up his option for this one and making it possible it’s his last in Brooklyn.
Pelicans: Green said he could tell during the Pelicans’ playoff run last season that Williamson had moved beyond the disappointment of injury rehab to excitement for playing again. “It’s very difficult going through injuries, especially when you’re really young and you’ve been working your tail off to try and be prepared to come in and help your team and you suffer a setback,” Green said. “So he had to navigate through all of those things. Now coming back this offseason, he’s been in the gym all season and that smile is real.” … C Jaxson Hayes (torn elbow ligament) is “very close” to returning,” Green said.
Nets: Brooklyn was missing its two best outside shooters, with Joe Harris (sore left foot) and Seth Curry (left ankle) not ready for the start of the season. … Irving addressed the crowd before the start of the game and made a plea for the return of WNBA star Brittney Griner from a Russian prison. “Everybody do your job. Please bring our sister home,” Irving said.
Pelicans: At Charlotte on Friday night.
Nets: Host Toronto on Friday night.
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