New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson reacts during the first...

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson reacts during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors, Friday, April 12, 2024, in San Francisco. Credit: AP/Godofredo A. Vásquez

NEW ORLEANS — It's been nearly five years since Pelicans fans packing a downtown block party erupted as New Orleans officially selected Zion Williamson first overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.

On Tuesday night, Williamson is slated to play in a postseason game for the first time since he starring for Duke in the NCAA Tournament.

It'll be in the Western Conference play-in as No. 7 seed New Orleans hosts an eighth-seeded Los Angeles Lakers team featuring NBA all-time leading scorer LeBron James and the Pelicans' 2012 first overall draft choice, Anthony Davis.

“We’re all extremely proud that Z has this opportunity and that our team has this opportunity," Pelicans coach Willie Green said after practice Monday. "He’s worked his tail off. ... His first time being able to experience this is a major step.”

Williamson's first four years were defined mostly by teasing flashes of what he could accomplish with his unusual combination of size (listed at 6-foot-7, 284 pounds), skill and explosiveness. A series of injuries to his knee, hand, foot and hamstring limited him to 114 games.

Before this season, Williamson had played in more than 29 games only once in a season. That was his second pro campaign (2020-21), when he averaged 27 points and 7.2 rebounds in 61 games. He broke his left ring finger near the end of that season and New Orleans missed the playoffs.

He missed his entire third pro season because of a foot fracture. The Pelicans made the play-in — and advanced to the first round of the playoffs — without him.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) shoots over Los...

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) shoots over Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) in the second half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, April 14, 2024. The Lakers won 124-108. Credit: AP/Gerald Herbert

Williamson averaged 26 points in 29 games before a hamstring injury ended his fourth season. The Pelicans again made the Western Conference play-in, but were ousted in one game by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

This season, Williamson has played in a career-high 70 games, averaging a team-high 22.9 points. Coaches and teammates say his conditioning — not to mention on-court savvy — have improved since the beginning of the season, when he'd periodically be given games off.

“I wasn’t where I needed to be," Williamson recounted recently. "I was stacking my days and getting where I needed to be. Over time, my coaches and my teammates, they saw and they trusted me, and they’re continuously trusting me.”

Green said he also has seen Williamson's game expand in ways that one might expect for a player whose grand total of previous NBA experience amounted to less than one-and-a-half seasons' worth of games.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) works the ball...

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) works the ball against Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, April 14, 2024. Credit: AP/Gerald Herbert

“I’ve seen significant growth from Z on and off the floor — his ability to continue to work at his conditioning, to stack his days, work on his game, his ability to be able to read the game throughout the course of the game, to see what teams are doing to him," Green said. "Sometimes they’re packing the paint, he gets off the ball, tremendous passer.

“He’s taken another step this year defensively, guarding the ball, being in the right positions, rebounding,” Green continued. "So, definitely seeing a ton of growth in him.”

During the Pelicans' final 29 games, Williamson was scratched just once. That was after banging his shooting hand against the backboard while blocking a shot. But he returned for the next game at Phoenix, posting 29 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks.

He has ball-handling skills similar to a guard — a position he played in his youth before a growth spurt — and often takes the ball up the floor and initiates the offense in what has become known as his “point Zion” role. He remains a force in the post, with a quick first step and ability to launch his big frame above the rim for thunderous dunks.

After one of his many highlight-filled performances during the final weeks of the regular season, Williamson said it was important for him to show his teammates: "I'm here ... whether it’s diving on the floor, defense, passing, scoring.”

His teammates are pleased to finally have him in uniform for the postseason, but also sound wary of placing too much responsibility on him.

“We’re very happy for him to be on this stage, but there’s no more pressure on him than there is on the rest of us," Pelicans veteran forward Larry Nance Jr. said.

The Pelicans' regular-season finale — a 124-108 loss to the Lakers — was not one of Williamson's best games. Guarded primarily by James, Williamson was held to 12 points. Afterward, he criticized himself for “being too passive.”

Green concurred.

“He has a good feel for the game. He has a feel for when he can be aggressive, when he needs to be more of a connector," the coach said, noting that during New Orleans' victories in their previous four games, Williamson was "doing a great job of mixing it up. And throughout the course of the game, he was finding seams to be able to attack. So, we've just got to get back to that.”

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