Fans began crowding into the Thomas &Mack Center early two nights ago, and by tipoff between the New Orleans Pelicans and New York Knicks, most of the upper-level seats were taken.
There was no such rush on Saturday.
The star attraction, Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson, was shut down for the rest of the Vegas Summer League after bruising his left knee in Friday’s earthquake-shortened 80-74 victory over the Knicks.
“Zion will move forward from this incident without issue,” David Griffin, Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations, said in a statement. “However, in an abundance of caution, we have made the determination that he will not appear in game action for the remainder of the NBA Summer League. He will continue to take part in training and conditioning with our performance team.”
Williamson was the No. 1 overall pick of this year’s draft and one of the more highly touted rookies in recent years. His absence from the court — Williamson did sit on the bench with his teammates — against the Washington Wizards on Saturday night resulted in swaths of open red seats even in the lower bowl.
The quieter version of the Thomas &Mack was quite different from the buzz of the previous night when fans even cheered Williamson’s pregame dunks. His strip of New York’s Kevin Knox and dunk in that game made ESPN “SportsCenter’s” top 10 plays and brought the roaring crowd to its feet.
“He’s amazing, he really is,” Pelicans Summer League coach Fred Vinson said. “You guys (media) know how physical Julius Randle was. Zion brings the same kind of physicality, but with just a touch more athleticism. He still has some growth, especially defensively. I think that will be his biggest growth. But he’s definitely dynamic, especially when the ball is in his hands.
“He’s not just a dunker. I know people see him as just a dunker, but he’s a guy that can create for teammates. He’s very unselfish. He’s a willing passer. Shooting is something we’ll deal with. We know it’s not necessarily his strength, but it’s something I’m sure as time goes along and being a professional, he’ll get better at it.”
The Summer League sold out its first two days largely — if not mostly — in anticipation of seeing the rookie out of Duke, who was a college sensation and considered by many as the player to revive the lackluster professional franchise in New Orleans.
It wasn’t just Pelicans fans who wanted to see Williamson in Las Vegas.
Much of the crowd at Friday’s game didn’t have a rooting interest in the Pelicans or the Knicks, and they were loudest anytime Williamson touched the ball.
A “We want Zion” chant began to percolate in the third quarter, many of the fans unaware he had been injured.
It was supposed to be his night, his matchup with No. 3 pick RJ Barrett of the Knicks that many wanted to see. Barrett and Williamson were teammates at Duke and are good friends.
Williamson scored 11 points in just nine minutes, and Barrett finished with 10 points and five rebounds.
The knee injury and followed by the earthquake made it a much different night than expected. Then the Pelicans had to return to the court about 24 hours after the building shook.
“This is 30 teams with players that love to play basketball,” said Trevon Bluiett, who scored 23 points in the Pelicans’ 84-79 loss to the Washington Wizards on Saturday. “If they told us to come back out that night (Friday), we would’ve come back out and played.”
Play resumed Saturday at the Thomas &Mack and Cox Pavilion, but the rest of the tournament goes on without Williamson.
New Orleans also is, for now, without UNLV product Christian Wood as well. Vinson said management and Wood’s agent had something to work out, but wouldn’t elaborate.
No Williamson and no Wood means more opportunities for other players.
“They’re not just playing for the New Orleans Pelicans,” Vinson said. “There are 29 other teams here, so they’re being watched by all.”